We will not know who the Phillies will target on the center field market until we reach the start of the free agent signing period, when Ruben Amaro Jr. and his front office can get a handle on the asking prices. But one name I have heard mentioned in a positive context several times this season is B.J. Upton. And the more I think about it, the more sense it would make for the Phillies to seriously explore adding him to the fold.
We all remember Upton from the 2008 postseason, when he hit seven home runs in 11 games in the ALDS and ALCS to help propel the Rays into a World Series matchup against the Phillies. In the four years since, Upton has failed to live up to the promise he showed as a 22 and 23-year-old, when he hit .286/.384/.452 (.836 OPS) with 33 home runs in 1,005 at-bats over two seasons. Since the start of the 2009 season, he has posted a battling line of .243/.318/.413 for a .731 OPS that ranks 18th among 25 major league center fielders with at least 1,500 plate appearances. But Upton does possess three qualities that are in short supply on the Phillies roster: speed, right-handed power, and upside.
Upton's 70 home runs since 2009 rank ninth among center fielders. When the Phillies traded away Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino, they parted with their two most effective right-handed power hitters, at least as far as everyday players are concerned. They are 18-24 in games against left-handed starters this season. Last year, they were 30-14. In 2010, they were 28-20. In his career, Upton has a .261/.366/.428 line against lefties.
Since 2009, Upton has stolen more bases than Shane Victorino. In fact, his 147 steals rank third among center fielders, trailing Michael Bourn and Rajai Davis. His defense is well-regarded. But it is his upside that I think will intrigue the Phillies most. At 27 years old, he is two years younger than Michael Bourn. He is one year younger than John Mayberry Jr. He would be the second-youngest member of the lineup behind Domonic Brown.
The Phillies' psychology could be affected by something that happened three offseasons ago. After the 2009 season, they had some interest in free agent third baseman Adrian Beltre, who was coming off a five-year stay in Seattle in which he failed to live up to the promise he showed in his 2004 contract year, when he finished second in NL MVP voting, hitting 48 home runs with a 1.017 OPS for the Dodgers. Beltre eventually signed a one-year, $9 million deal with the Red Sox, a gamble that paid off when he parlayed a huge season into a five-year, $80 million contract with the Rangers. Over the last three seasons, Beltre has hit .313/.352/.557 with 90 home runs while playing a premium position. In other words, he would have looked really nice in this Phillies lineup.
That is not to say that Upton is the next Beltre. In Seattle, Beltre was playing for a losing team in a pitcher's ballpark, giving you some reason to think that he might benefit from a change of scenery. He was also hampered by injuries. Upton has played on a contender for most of his career, and his home/road splits are not drastic. Nevertheless, if you compare his numbers from 2009-12 to the ones Beltre posted in his final four seasons in Seattle, they are at least in the same ballpark.
Again, a lot will come down to asking price. Upton is making $7 million this season. He is still very much in his prime. The Phillies probably wouldn't be the only team thinking that he might benefit from a move to a different city, or a different league, or closer to his native home in eastern Virginia. But watching Beltre thrive these last three years might push them harder in the direction of aggressiveness on another right-handed power bat looking to rediscover the glory of his youth. Just some food for thought.