Though the Atlanta Braves are understandably being hopeful about it, their outlook in center field could quickly escalate to a Dan Uggla-level mess.
No, one poor year isn’t the end-all indictment for B.J. Upton, but this wasn’t just a down season for the 29-year old; it was easily the worst campaign of his career, with red flags to be found everywhere even for the most hopeful of Atlanta fans. Guys in the middle of their primes shouldn’t be seeing their power fall off the cliff (.105 ISO, .289 SLG), nor should they be seeing their speed diminish (12 steals in 2013 vs 30-plus in each of the last five seasons.
The elder Upton certainly didn’t earn his five-year, $75 million contract to have his increasing pop-up rate spike to 19.3 percent, nor was he supposed to showing three-year strikeout rates that are trending the wrong way (33.9 percent).
Wait, are we talking about Uggla or Upton now?
Though they’re very different players with different struggles, they’re in the same situation in that they’re highly-paid and badly underperforming. Exacerbating the problem in center, however, is that the Braves really don’t have much of a choice than to hope for a bounce-back season — it’s only the second year into his deal, so it’s not like he’s going to be easily traded (they’re having a hard time with Uggla as is) and there’s also the morale of his brother Justin Upton to consider.
Oh, and also like the situation at second, the team’s Plan B isn’t exactly ideal either. Yes, former Braves prospect Jordan Schafer was actually surprisingly productive (0.9 fWAR, 22 steals over 94 games) after he returned from a failed stint as the Houston Astros‘ center fielder in 2012, but in the worst-case scenario where Upton falls flat again in 2014, he’s far from what you would call a sure thing.
I mean, there was a reason why he ended up being traded to the Astros to begin with, you know?
So with Plan A being an exercise in faith and Plan B being likely inadequate, should the Braves look to shore up the position with a Plan C? Though it wouldn’t work logistically barring a corresponding move, the potential hole that can develop at center could call for the team to at least inquire on a player who could provide a more reliable depth piece than Schafer.
Obviously, big-ticket players like Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo are out of the question in this scenario, but what about someone in a lower tier, like Nate McLouth?
The former center fielder-to-be for the Braves never really worked out after he was traded to Atlanta, but at 32-years old and coming off his most productive season (and his first full one) in years with 2.5 fWAR, 12 homers and 30 steals over 593 PA), perhaps a homecoming of sorts could yield different results.
The free agent would of course rather be a starter as he’s still in his prime, but being a fourth outfielder in Atlanta isn’t necessarily a death sentence on the bench. In fact, considering all the health issues that can arise and the fact that a B.J. Upton bounce-back is far from assured, McLouth could see plenty of opportunities to carve a role for himself.
The caveat to this scenario is that it’s extremely unlikely to happen in the offseason, though, given that the Braves would effectively have to needlessly cut Schafer loose to accommodate another outfielder, and McLouth could very well turn out to be a too-expensive bench player in all goes well in the outfield.
Still, even if there’s not necessarily a great reason for them to be actively trying to make such a move right now, it would not be too surprising if the team found itself in a position where they will have to do it sooner rather than later in 2014.