YOU CAN LOOK at it as the Phillies losing out on B.J. Upton, or you can look at it as the Phillies saving $75.25 million over 5 years, which is the price the Braves ended up paying for a centerfielder whose production has seldom seemed to match his prodigious potential. Figure it out, and you will have figured out the riddle Ruben Amaro Jr. will continue to face as he attempts to deal his team back into contention for 2013.
It was no secret that the Phillies had Upton near the top of their list of offseason targets. In fact, Amaro put such little effort into masking his interest that we can't help but wonder whether he's really disappointed that the Braves decided to outbid him. Because this might be an offseason in which the Phillies' best course of action is to operate on the defensive. They need a centerfielder, yes. But they do not need - and, perhaps, cannot afford - to limit their future spending power by overpaying for the same kind of player Amaro and Charlie Manuel have spent much of the last couple of years grumbling about. Upton does not hit for contact (a .242 batting average and 165 strikeouts per season from 2010-12). He does not draw walks (a .317 on-base percentage in that same period). He has been pulled off the field for a lack of hustle.
Upton's production, both in 2012 and for his career, is similar to that of Jimmy Rollins, strikeouts being the notable exception. Last year, Upton hit .246, with a .298 on-base percentage, .454 slugging percentage and 28 home runs. Rollins hit .250/.316/.427 with 23 home runs. Upton stole 31 bases and was caught six times. Rollins stole 30 and was caught five times.
None of that should suggest that Upton's situation this offseason was comparable to the one Rollins faced as a free agent last season, when he eventually re-signed with the Philies for 3 years, $33 million (plus a fourth, vesting year). Rollins, after all, was 33 last season. Upton will turn 29 next August. It is, however, fair to say that the production from Rollins that cost the Phillies $11 million last year is similar to the production the Braves should expect out of their $15 million investment in Upton for 2013 and the four seasons that follow. And that the options at centerfield this year are far more abundant than the ones at the Phillies' disposal last offseason.
The catch, of course, is that those options do not possess either the righthanded power or the vast potential of a player such as Upton. There is a good chance that the centerfielder who would have most improved the Phillies ended up signing with the Braves Wednesday. But general managers do not operate in a vacuum, and the $15 million per year Amaro would have been forced to spend on Upton is $15 million per year he would not have been able to spend elsewhere. And the biggest lesson of the 2012 season is that the Phillies face no shortage of needs to be addressed. So while they might not have landed their first choice in centerfield, they might now have the ability to land a corner outfielder such as Nick Swisher (who, frankly, is a better fit for the lineup anyway). Or a third baseman such as Kevin Youkilis, who is aging and injury-prone, but who posted numbers similar to Upton's in 2012. And either move could leave them with enough money to spend on another bullpen piece.
It is too early to forecast how all of the pieces will fit. But the Phillies have plenty of wiggle room. Maybe that means signing Angel Pagan or fan favorite Shane Victorino to play centerfield while throwing more money at the aforementioned positions. Or maybe it means kicking more tires on the trade market, where, on Wednesday, the Phillies reportedly were on the verge of landing a bona fide setup man in Wilton Lopez from the Astros for yet-to-be-identified minor leaguers (CSNPhilly.com reported the deal is pending physicals and would see the Phillies part with two minor leaguers "who have played in the upper levels of the minors").
Rather than frolicking in a free-agent market where veterans such as Jonathan Broxton and Brandon League signed multiyear deals, the Phillies are getting a 29-year-old righthander who posted a 2.17 ERA with sterling strikeout, walk and ground-ball rates in 2012 and who is arbitration eligible for the first time this offseason.
Given the Phillies' history with big-ticket players, we still can't rule out Amaro responding to the loss of Upton by making a run at a Michael Bourn or even a Josh Hamilton. But Wednesday's events certainly suggest that the Phillies will prioritize value as they reload for next year.
After seeing Upton's price tag, it will be hard to argue with such a strategy.
On Twitter: @HighCheese