While checking in on the Durham Bulls this weekend, something stuck out at us. Desmond Jennings, who some thought would replace Carl Crawford in left field this year, has started three of the first four games in center field.
Why is this significant? Because, come July, the Rays may need a new center fielder.
BJ Upton is on a tear to start the season. It is still very early, but after nine games Upton has a .920 OPS (OBP + SLG). To put that in perspective, only four players in the American League had a higher OPS in 2010.
Whether it is a healthy shoulder, a stronger mental approach, or even the time he spent with Rod Carew, Bossman looks like the guy we saw in 2007 and in the 2008 playoffs. And that makes him very likely to be traded.
Upton is making $4.8 million this season, in his second year of arbitration eligibility*. Next year, in his final year of arbitration, Upton can expect a bump in salary to $7-8 million** depending on how well he does this season. He will be eligible for free agency following the 2012 season.
It has been well-documented that the Rays have explored moving Upton in the past. And now that he is producing, interest in the speedy center fielder may finally match the Rays’ demand.
The Rays did hold on to Carl Crawford until he walked via free agency. But with Upton, they could choose a different path. For one, Upton is no lock to be a Type A free agent and command two draft picks as Crawford did. In fact, at this point, Upton wouldn’t even be a Type B free agent (1 draft pick) if he hit free agency today.
Also consider that the Rays were a playoff contender as Crawford neared free agency. And yet there were rumors that the Rays discussed a potential swap prior to the 2010 season that would have sent Crawford to the White Sox.
Like Matt Garza, Upton is about to get very expensive and his production may be peaking. And like Garza, the Rays may move Upton before the price tag goes up. And rather than replacing Crawford, Jennings may find himself as the Rays next center fielder.
*players are eligible for salary arbitration in years 4-6 and are eligible for free agency after 6 years of service time.
**Shane Victorino is a decent comparable for BJ. He made $5M in his second year of arbitration eligibility and $7.5M in his final arbitration season (both were part of a long-term extension)