The Elias rankings are ridiculously flawed. They combined first basemen, designated hitters, and outfielders without distinction between corner outfielders and center fielders. These players are ranked based on stats that favor offensive heavy players: batting average, on-base percentage, and runs batted in. That’s it. No defense. No stolen bases. Nothing like that. Since becoming a center fielder in 2008, Upton has accumulated 20.8 runs (of FanGraphs’ WAR) through positional and defensive credit. His offense has been credited with 18.1 runs. In other words: a lot of his value is tied up in areas that Elias is blind to.
It should come as no surprise that Upton does not rate well in Eddie Bajek’s reverse engineered rankings. Bajek has him at 54.6, the lowest Type B free agent from the 1B/OF/DH class sits at 61.2 and Upton is unlikely to jump that high barring two historic performances in the upcoming seasons. Unless something changes – and maybe the something that changes is that the compensation system goes bye-bye altogether – the Rays will not receive anything once Upton leaves via free agency.
Since 2011 figures to be a retooling season, it makes the most sense to move Upton this offseason. Otherwise, the team is putting all the proverbial eggs in the 2012 basket. Whether that means Upton upping his value, competing, whatever; 2012 becomes the final stand. That’s not a comfortable position to be in.
Jason Collette heard through an industry friend last offseason that the Rays and Padres discussed a deal with Upton and Heath Bell’s names included. Nothing came of that – obviously – but it’s not even the latest occurrence of Upton being available in trades. He was available leading up to the deadline, yet the market failed to present a good return for a team on its way to the postseason.
One of the concerns with moving Upton is that the market will not appropriately value him. Maybe the trade market doesn’t properly value him, but the free agent market – the part that concerns the Rays at least – surely does not. The Rays will be faced with a classic case of game theory unless an extension with Upton can be reached.
Everyone has probably heard the stories about how two strangers enter a situation where one is given $100 to split however he/she sees fit. The other person can then either accept or reject the offer. If they reject, both walk away hands free. If they accept, then both leave with more than they entered with. The rational choice is to always accept the offer, no matter how unwilling to share the other person is.
It’s not a perfect comparison, since the Rays are not choosing between trading Upton and letting him walk in a vacuum. One has to account for Upton’s performance over the next two seasons too. Say he lives up to a rough projection of three wins in each season. That’s six wins which figures to be worth something like $25 million. If Upton gets 50% raises in arbitration; meaning he makes a total of $11.25 million the next two seasons. That’s still a surplus of nearly $14 million.
What kind of return would be worth it? Take the Bell example from earlier. Bell is entering his last season of arbitration eligibility. He made $4 million last season and should see a raise, perhaps bumping his salary to $6 million or more. Bell’s been worth of at least two WAR in each of his two seasons as Padres’ closer. His WPA suggests he’s been worth closer to three wins on average in those seasons, and since some think WAR doesn’t account for relievers correctly, let’s split the difference at 2.5 wins.
The math gives him a surplus value of roughly $4 million. But wait, there’s more.
Bell is a closer (a very good one) who dominates every category Elias counts. He’s recorded 89 saves the past two seasons alone. Predictably, Bajek’s Elias rankings not only have Bell as a Type A free agent, but the highest rated amongst National League relievers. His score is just over 86; for comparison, Mariano Rivera sits at 88.6, Joakim Soria at 84, and Jonathan Papelbon at 81. Bell is pretty entrenched as a Type A.
Thanks to Victor Wang’s research we know how much to value draft picks. A late first round pick is worth $5.2 million, a supplemental pick is worth $2.6 million, and an early second rounder is worth $0.8 million. Bell would bring back a first rounder and a supplemental pick; or $7.8 million. Add that together and you get $12 million in total surplus value.
Upton has the slight edge, but that just shows how much draft pick compensation can inflate a player’s value. Unfortunately for the Rays, that’s going to work against them with Upton.