Earlier this week, Red Sox fans everywhere obsessed over rumors of a possible Jon Lester - Wil Myers swap. The fervor has died down since initial reports of discussion between the Royals and Red Sox surfaced, but plenty of interesting stuff came out of the discussion.
One of the oft-repeated trains of thought was that, if trading Lester for Myers did not solve the team's problems in the rotation, it might open up other routes to that end, be it in terms of salary, or making prospects available. Specifically, the possibility of floating one of the team's top prospects in outfielder Jackie Bradley for the good young starting pitcher the Red Sox could really use was floated.
It was an interesting idea, if not necessarily an entirely exciting one. But then the Atlanta Braves gave B.J. Upton $75 million over five years. Suddenly, everything has changed.
In many ways this promises to be the offseason of ridiculous contracts. Already we're hearing Zack Greinke is out to break. That Jeremy Guthrie grabbed $25 million over three years, Russell Martin is looking for 4/$40, and Cody Ross seems to think one good year in Fenway is worth 3/$30 just seems to further the idea that everyone deserves big dollars. There are reasons for this-cable deals and the like-but we won't get into that here. That's a story for another day.
Still, the clear message with B.J. Upton is that centerfielders will get paid. And while Jackie Bradley Jr. still has a lot to prove (as does any minor leaguer), there's a point where you have to wonder what the floor to his value is.
Consider the player B.J. Upton actually is. One description of him is a strong defender who hit 28 home runs and stole 31 bases last year. Another description is a strong defender who has a four-year fWAR high of 4.1 and rWAR high of 2.8. A player whose bat is silent when it's not hitting dingers. Since 2009, Upton has produced wOBAs of .306, .328, .333, and .323. And that includes his stolen bases.
Tossing out all the talk about attitude as just so much chaff, Upton is a useful player. He defends his position very well and isn't a black hole offensively. You might even go so far as to call him good depending on how you value his various talents.
He's not, however, a great player. He just isn't. Four years is long enough to convince anyone that the 2008 B.J. Upton was an aberration, and at 28 he just isn't likely to be getting better when the signs haven't been there at all. Upton is what he is: a useful player whose value is severely limited by his ability to make contact and reach base.
Now let's get back to Bradley. What is Bradley? A strong defender at a valuable position with a bat that's untested at the highest level. Here's the question for you, though: can you envision the scenario where Bradley, with his excellent pitch recognition and discipline at the plate, can't approach the .322 wOBA that has been Upton's lot for the last four years? Even the king of disappointing outfield busts in Delmon Young is close enough to that offensively to warrant consideration.
It would be one thing if this were just the Braves going crazy, but it doesn't seem like it. Michael Bourn is in similar territory and is also expected to rake in the cash. The money for decent talent at center field, like at shortstop and catcher, is just through the roof right now. Jackie Bradley may not have the wheels of these guys, but he was born to play the position (no reach-of-a-pun intended), and has the potential to bring a complete game the likes of which neither Upton nor Bourn bring to the table.
Jacoby Ellsbury isn't going to be around much longer. This Upton contract all-but-ensures that Scott Boras will price his client well beyond the point where the Sox are interested in bringing him back. It's too much of a reach to say that Jackie Bradley's floor is on par with Upton or Bourn, for sure. We've seen prospects burn out dramatically, and as much time as I've spent ragging on that pair, they're still good major league players. But with defense being so much of their game and Bradley's glove/instincts unlikely to disappear, the chance that he approaches that level of production is pretty high. And if that's worth $15 million a year these days, then Bradley should be nearly untouchable.