There are rumblings about a B.J. Upton–Cliff Lee deal, according to Peter Gammons (via Twitter). That doesn't mean the Rays are going to trade their center fielder, but we do know this: Upton has seen his name in the lineup less than usual since he loafed after an extra base hit ten days ago. Let's evaluate the 25-year-old's value and explore some possible trade partners for the Rays, who do not shy away from blockbuster deals.
Upton is hitting .228/.321/.399 this year with 24 steals in 30 attempts. That's not bad for a center fielder, but Upton's defense appears to have fallen off (even disregarding last month's episode). He has been below-average on defense, according to UZR/150, an advanced defensive metric that suggests Upton was better than average in 2008-09. Even though his strikeout and walk rates are similar to his career averages, Pitch f/x data shows that Upton is swinging at more pitches than ever, especially ones out of the strike zone.
The Rays have Upton under contract for $3MM this year and under team control through 2012. Unless he is non-tendered or signs a long-term deal, Upton will get raises through arbitration in 2011 and 2012. The Rays have a cheaper option at Triple A Durham; top prospect Desmond Jennings is hitting .296/.371/.423 with 20 steals in 22 tries. He has just one homer, but appears ready for the majors.
The Rays have a number of possible suitors for Upton, who is still young, talented and cheap enough to have considerable appeal:
- The Mariners have Ichiro and Franklin Gutierrez locked up, plus Michael Saunders, so Upton doesn't appear to be a natural fit in Seattle. Gammons suggested a third team could be involved if the Mariners and Rays make a Lee-Upton swap.
- The Braves are looking for a right-handed outfielder and Upton qualifies.
- The Padres could use an outfielder and Upton's speed and defensive potential would presumably be a fit in spacious Petco Park.
- The Giants could upgrade in the outfield. Acquiring Upton would probably mean less playing time for Nate Schierholtz and Aaron Rowand.
- The Red Sox have seen their best outfielders miss time with injuries, but Jacoby Ellsbury, J.D. Drew and Mike Cameron are under control for 2011 and their fill-ins have played well.
- The Nationals targeted Upton earlier in the season. Here's an idea, though it's pure speculation: Upton to the Nationals for Adam Dunn, prospects and cash to even out the players' salaries. The Rays need a DH and Nats GM Mike Rizzo said recently that he wants to make his team "younger, better, more athletic."
- The Royals don't have a long-term option in center field.
It would be surprising to see the Rays trade Upton and there's no indication that they're planning to move him. But if they decide to trade the former first round pick, they should have multiple suitors to choose from.