Know how the Atlanta Braves say the free-agent market is an inefficient use of funds? Know how we all gnash our teeth every time we hear that and, “They’re only trying to justify being skinflints”? Know what else? They’re correct.
Two years ago, the Braves’ corner outfielders were Justin Upton and Jason Heyward. The Braves traded them last fall/winter because both were set to become free agents after the 2015 season. Here’s how much it costs to employ Upton and Heyward today:
That’s not for a team. That’s for two players, or eight percent of a 25-man roster, or 25 percent of an everyday eight. Admittedly, that $316.75 million buys eight seasons of Heyward plus six of Upton — both have opt-outs, those being the newest thing in FA contracts — but still: Those two contracts are what B.J./Melvin Jr. Upton got (and what helped get Frank Wren fired) TIMES FOUR.
Don’t get me wrong. I like both players. I like Heyward a bit more than Upton because he’s much the better fielder, but I’d be happy with either on my team — as long as I didn’t have to pay. Even with both, the 2014 Braves finished under .500 and next-to-last in baseball in runs. (The 2013 Braves won 96 games and the National League East, it must also be said. They’d won 94 the year before without either Upton.) Heyward and Upton are good-to-very-good players, but here’s the number of times, over 14 full major-league seasons, they’ve finished among the top 10 in MVP voting:
(That was Upton in 2011. Fourth at age 24 as a Diamondback. Arizona traded him a year later. Arizona does strange stuff.)
The Cubs bought Heyward for $184 million over eight seasons. The Tigers just bought Upton for $132.75 million over six seasons, which is $22.15 million per year, which on an annual basis is almost exactly what Heyward got. If neither contract represents anything close to a bargain, Detroit seems to have overspent more.
Heyward is two years younger and, over six full seasons, has had four years of a 5.8 WAR value or better (using Baseball Reference’s formulation). Over eight full seasons, Upton has had one such year, the aforementioned 2011. We think of Upton as a power hitter, but he has hit 30 homers only once and driven in more than 88 runs only once. Using FanGraphs’ wRC+ (weighted runs created adjusted for park effects), he was 42nd in the majors last season — three spots behind Heyward, one behind Yunel Escobar.
Wren traded for Upton — it was the sort of trade 28 other teams would have made, and it worked out pretty well; the Braves also got Chris Johnson, who had a career year in 2013, and the D-backs dumped Martin Prado before that season was done — because the GM believed J-Up could be a franchise player. (Almost everybody else in baseball felt the same.) As good as Upton can be, he’s not quite that. He can get hot and carry a club for a month, but he’s not Miguel Cabrera.
With Detroit, he doesn’t have to be. The Tigers already have Miguel Cabrera. Upton is headed for one of the few teams that doesn’t need him to be a superstar, which means Detroit overpaid for essentially a complementary type, but that’s the way of free agency. Everybody always pays too much. Don’t you hate it when the cheapskate Braves are right?