The Nats probably have a center fielder for next season in Bryce Harper. But there is a decent chance that they will need another outfielder, and they may not go after Josh Hamilton. Where does that leave them? Well, there are certainly some other corner outfield options, but if the CF options are better players, better hitters, should they go that way? It wouldn’t be a terrible thing to move Harper to LF and have an even better fielder out in center, as it would make quite a defensive outfield. (The Yankees did this with Granderson and Gardner the last few years and consensus was their defense was excellent out there).

Well wouldn’t you know it, there are 2 players that fit the bill for this conversation. Of course I’m talking about Michael Bourn and BJ Upton. They both play CF, they both can hit pretty well, although they have two very different strengths with the bat. They are also ranked as the #2 and #4 top free agents in the Keith Law Top 50 free agent list.

Michael Bourn

Bourn is a very talented player, and probably profiles better if you were to talk about the Nats “needs”. First and foremost, he is a speedy left handed hitting leadoff hitter. Ok, the leadoff part isn’t actually one of his talents per se, but you figure that’s where he’d play. His OBP, though, isn’t spectacular for that position, as his career line is only .272/.339/.365, although his last 2 seasons have looked better. He also led the league in steals each season from 2009-2011, and although he also lead in caught stealing from 2011-2012, his success rate is very high. A good part of his value is tied to his defense, which is really great.

But his bat isn’t great, it’s just good. NL Center Fielders as a whole hit .264/.332/.408 last year, which is not as good as Bourn’s .274/.348/.391, but it’s not terribly worse. The fact that Bourn got on a base quite a bit more is where his value on offense lies, and if he can keep that up, he is a valuable addition. And that .348 OBP is actually his exact total from 2009-2012, so it’s certainly a good bet he’ll keep that up.

He isn’t old, turning 30 this year, but he isn’t young either. The length of his contract will be, as usual, a big deal. Without his speed, he is no longer a useful player, and that can go quickly once players age. But as we have seen with many speedsters, he probably will be fast for years to come. A 6 or 7 year deal would certainly be sketchy with him, but anything less than 5 and you probably wouldn’t have to worry about him losing more than a step. As far as injuries and aging go, because his value is so tied to that speed, he is riskier than a more multi-skilled player, but chances are good his value will outlive those shorter deals

BJ Upton

Upton is actually #2 on Keith Law’s list, ahead of Josh Hamilton (and Bourn, who’s #4), and for some very good reasons. At only 28, even a 7 year deal would probably not involve a major issue with aging (although certainly injuries or just plain lack of ability could come into play).

He hits with power, especially for the position, averaging 20 HRs per year over the last 4 years. This is a significant advantage over Bourn, and Upton is also fast and plays very good defense. He is a bit behind Bourn in both of those categories, but not drastically so. Bourn averaged 54 SBs per year since 2009, and Upton averaged 38. Some of that difference is from the fact that Bourn got on base more, which leads us to Upton’s biggest negatives – he doesn’t get on base enough.

Since 2009 his OBP numbers have been .313, .322, .331 and .298. This is more surprising because in 1188 PAs from 2007-2008, his OBP was .384. He came up with a good eye and good pitch recognition, and that seems to have disappeared. He also, according to KLaw, was much less patient in 2012, and “he needs to find a workable middle ground between his swing-at-everything approach of 2012 and the more patient approach he had earlier in his career.” If he can get some of that patience back, he could be one of the best CFs in baseball, like he has been in years past.

Who’s Better?

Upton could very conceivably end up being the better player between the two. He has power that Bourn can only dream of, he has shown patience in the past, and his speed isn’t a significant downgrade. But BJ Upton is a potential guy, and Bourn is who he is. Bourn also hits from the left side which makes him slightly more desirable, but he would almost certainly knock Harper out of the #2 lineup spot, to keep the only lefties from hitting back to back. So those who worry about Harper being shoved into the 3 or 4 spot at such a young age would almost definitely see that happen if they signed Bourn. Upton, on the other hand, may not be a leadoff guy, and could keep the top of the lineup essentially the same. This of course could be considered a negative if you believe the Nats need a “pure” leadoff guy.

Rather than ask what the Nats should do with their lineup and their outfield situation, which can lead to hundreds of answers, I am very curious to find out which of these two players fans would prefer to have. And don’t worry, I’m not saying that support of either in this poll would means support of either as the plan A course of action. That’s why there’s no “none of the above” answer. Just plain and simple, “Which guy would you prefer?”, knowing what we know about them.

With all of these descriptions, your preference may come down to something very simple – do you want to go with the high risk/high reward potential superstar or the safer potential All Star? So where do you stand?

By Charlie