Former Tampa Bay Rays slugger B.J. Upton, 28, hit .246 with 28 homers, 78 RBI and 31 stolen bases for Tampa Bay last season. He will replace free agent Michael Bourn as the Braves’ center fielder and provide a needed right-handed power bat for the lineup.
ATLANTA — Jason Heyward was in the audience as B.J. Upton was introduced Thursday as Atlanta’s new centerfielder.
That made manager Fredi Gonzalez smile as he realized he didn’t have to worry so much about finding the third starter in his outfield.
“Shoot, we may not even need a left fielder,” Gonzalez said. “With him playing center and Jason, who just won a Gold Glove, in right, it’s going to be fun watching these guys cover some ground in the outfield.”
Upton was given a No. 2 Braves jersey after finalizing a $75.25 million, five-year contract — the biggest ever given a free agent by the franchise. He gets a $3 million signing bonus payable by Dec. 31 and salaries of $12.45 million next season, $13.45 million in 2014, $14.45 million in 2015, $15.45 million in 2016 and $16.45 million in 2017.
The 28-year-old spent his first eight big seasons with Tampa Bay. He hit .246 with 28 homers, 78 RBIs and 31 steals this year and replaces Michael Bourn in center. He is not expected to fill Bourn’s role as a leadoff hitter.
Braves general manager Frank Wren said adding a right-handed hitter gives more balance to a lineup that includes left-handed hitters Brian McCann, Freddie Freeman and Heyward. Wren said the right-handed power from a centerfielder made Upton especially attractive.
“It’s one thing to have a leadoff hitter, which has been great for us, having that true leadoff hitter,” Wren said, referring to Bourn. “We feel like we can find that or create that. But to get someone who can play center field at (Upton’s) caliber and can also hit 20 to 30 home runs, that’s a different dimension. We felt like that would really add to our offense and make our offense deeper.
“We were so left-handed dominant over the last number of years,” Wren added. “Now to be able to better balance our lineup left and right, that was something we felt could really enhance our team.”
Martin Prado is expected to move from left field to replace the retired Chipper Jones at third base. Wren said he believes third base is Prado’s best position, but he said Prado’s versatility gives the team options during talks at next week’s winter meetings.
“It narrows our focus a little more, whether it’s leadoff or left field or that combination,” Wren said. “Martin Prado can continue to play left field … and he can go to third base, so we have some flexibility with the way our roster is constructed.”
Wren said internal options in the search for a new leadoff hitter include Prado and shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who hit .289 as a rookie.
Upton, also courted by Philadelphia, said he was won over when he visited the Braves on Nov. 15. Gonzalez, Wren and former manager Bobby Cox were part of the Braves’ welcoming committee.
“I came in on that trip and really never felt like that before,” Upton said. “They really made me feel like I was part of the Braves family. … Bobby was great. It feels like I’ve known him for years. These guys, they got me. There’s no other way to put it. They had me when I came here and I left and I felt really good about it.”
Upton’s home run totals have increased in each of the last three seasons, but he has hit below .250 with more than 150 strikeouts in four straight years.
Upton said his goal is to hit “better than I’ve been the last three or four years.”
“I expect a lot out of myself,” he said. “I felt, yeah they were OK years, decent years, but I think I can be a lot better. Hopefully I can get the batting average up and cut down on the strikeouts and other than that continue to do what I’m doing.”
Bourn hit .274 with 42 stolen bases this year but he had 155 strikeouts, almost as high as Upton’s 169. The Braves believe Upton’s big advantage in power over Bourn, who hit only nine homers, more than makes up for the additional strikeouts.
Wren said losing a first-round draft pick to Tampa Bay was not a factor because the team will gain a similar selection when Bourn signs elsewhere.
“The first-round pick we’ll pick up for Bourn will be somewhere in the 26-to-30 range and we lost like the 26th pick,” Wren said. “So it’s negligible, probably within five picks of each other. It won’t really be a difference at all. That’s the projection we have now.”
Heyward, who had 27 homers and 21 stolen bases this season, said adding a similar power-speed player in Upton is “awesome” for the team.
“He’s able to do some things you have to worry about on the offensive and defensive side of the ball,” Heyward said.
Upton won’t be the only star in the Braves’ lineup, but he’ll be in the spotlight, thanks to the big contract.
“I hope there’s no added pressure, but I’ve dealt with things like that in the past,” he said. “I know what’s expected of me. I won’t put any added pressure on myself. I’ll just go out and do what I can to help this team win.”
Upton’s parents and agent, Larry Reynolds, attended the news conference. Upton said his brother, Arizona outfielder Justin Upton, wanted to join the family but couldn’t make travel arrangements.
B.J. Upton said playing with his brother “has been a big, big topic of conversation” for the two.
“Obviously he’s under contract for three years,” Upton said. “Is it a possibility? Yes. Is it going to happen? We don’t know.”