The trade market for outfielder B.J. Upton(notes) is "interesting," as one Tampa Bay Rays official put it Tuesday, and as it develops one thing is becoming clearer: If the Rays deal Upton, they're very likely to get a greater bounty than the New York Mets will for the market's hottest commodity, Carlos Beltran(notes).
Whether it's the San Francisco Giants looking for Beltran insurance, the Atlanta Braves seeking a long-term solution in center field or the Washington Nationals trying to snipe Upton for a run next season, the flexibility in Upton's contract – he doesn't become a free agent until after the 2012 season – is making him an addition as intriguing as Beltran, even if Upton's OPS is nearly 200 points worse.
A number of officials surveyed Tuesday indicated to Yahoo! Sports that they consider the Nationals a favorite for Upton, an idea owed as much to Washington general manager Mike Rizzo's longtime desire for the 26-year-old as anything. The Rays official said no team is the favorite at the moment, though that is likely to change within the next 24 hours as scouts around the sport finish their assignments and reconvene at team headquarters to discuss what they saw and flesh out the market.
The Nationals shouldn't be a surprise entrant; their lingering around .500 this season has been a pleasant surprise, and with the return of Stephen Strasburg(notes), the likely debut of Bryce Harper(notes) and the potential addition of a marquee free agent in 2012, Upton could give Washington one of the game's best defensive outfields, flanked by Harper and Jayson Werth(notes).
"Rizz has liked him for so long, and now that he's available, I just think he'll pay what he needs to," one executive said.
Whether the Nationals have that much is the big question. The Rays sent scouts to Washington's Triple-A Syracuse and High Class A Potomac affiliates Monday. Pitcher Brad Peacock, whom Rizzo has told teams is not available, is at Triple-A. The rest of Washington's highly touted prospects are at other levels: catcher Derek Norris(notes) (Double-A), pitcher A.J. Cole (low A) and Robbie Ray (low A).
The Rays could use a shortstop until Hak-Ju Lee is ready, and Nationals executives and scouts have told others that the underachieving Ian Desmond(notes) is available, despite Rizzo's public proclamations they're holding onto him.
Rays GM Andrew Friedman can be picky. Whether it's sending Upton to the loser of the Beltran sweepstakes or a team playing for next season, or holding onto him and dealing him in a winter bereft of high-impact outfielders, he has plenty of options – none of them bad.
Speaking of good situations, the Kansas City Royals' signing of Melky Cabrera(notes) for $1.25 million with another quarter million in performance bonuses is turning out among the best signings of the offseason. Cabrera ranks 30th in the AL in adjusted OPS, with his on-base and slugging percentages a combined 21 percent better than league average, and in an increasingly crowded outfield market he's considered a nice fallback option.
One problem: He might not be available.
The Royals are leaning toward keeping Cabrera for next season, when he's arbitration eligible and, though due a raise, would remain a bargain if he continues to produce. If the Rays pull Upton off the market and the Cardinals do the same with Colby Rasmus(notes) – who is available, according to one scout who thinks St. Louis GM John Mozeliak's protestations otherwise are nothing more than public posturing – suddenly Cabrera becomes the best center fielder to be had. And considering advanced metrics show Cabrera is at least as good a defender as Rasmus and nearly at Upton's level, and his bat far supersedes either, the chances of Kansas City getting in return what they desire are minimal.
Kansas City also is hoping to work out some sort of contract for next season with outfielder Jeff Francoeur, who has been linked to Boston and other teams that want cheap alternatives to Josh Willingham(notes) and Ryan Ludwick(notes). The Royals and Francoeur hold a mutual option for $4 million that the team would need to increase to keep him around. The Royals value Francoeur's leadership and better-than-expected production so much they are willing to do so, and if they don't deal Francoeur, a source indicated, chances are they get the impression the 27-year-old is willing to stay, too.
"They just put their names in everything," the scout said. "I'm not sure whether they want the guy or are there to drive the price up for others."
Most likely, Boston is using its resources to do due diligence, but the scout has a point: The Red Sox's financial might allows them to act like the large stack at a poker table and dictate others' maneuvers by throwing around their weight.
Another scout's interesting perspective on Beltran: "It's chicken right now. But it's just like free agency. Somebody is going to get desperate and overpay."
And who is that team?
"Giants, I think," the scout said. "They just need him the most. Better fit than Upton."
As Yahoo! Sports' Tim Brown reported Tuesday, the Rangers' spirited run at Beltran makes sense. They've joined the Rays as the farm system with the most depth, and whether it's dealing a polished left-hander like Robbie Erlin, a high-upside arm like David Perez or one of their powerful third basemen (Tommy Mendonca and Mike Olt), they can withstand the hit far more easily than a thin San Francisco system.
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