On Wednesday the Atlanta Braves signed B.J. Upton, a 28-year-old center fielder with an OPS+ of 110 over the last three years, to a five-year contract worth $75 million. The St. Louis Cardinals' center fielder, a 28-year-old with a career OPS+ of 113, will make a half-million or so in 2013. Jon Jay's value to the Cardinals isn't exactly breaking news, but the Upton deal puts an exclamation point on it—especially since Jay's probably been better.
Outside of sheer value, it's an odd comparison because Upton and Jay are such different players. B.J. Upton was once baseball's best prospect, a multi-talented shortstop with every tool there was and the offensive upside to be a designated hitter in the majors at 19. (Even if that was for the benighted Devil Rays.) After an unlikely .300 season he looked like a superstar in 2007, and he's settled in, now, as a low-OBP slugger who can also run the bases and play a passable center.
Jay, meanwhile, seems like a fair bet to never match the 10 home runs he hit in 2011. He hits line drives—lots of them—and he plays a surprisingly capable center field for somebody drafted, back in 2006, as a tweener fourth outfielder. He was never a top prospect, but he's become a three-WAR starter by doing exactly what he did in the minors: Hit .300 with exactly enough doubles to keep the bat in his hands. His .373 OBP in 2012 might be tough to top, since it came with twice as many HBPs as the year before, but he's an above-average hitter at a premium defensive position. (For more on Jay, check out this extended examination from Aaron Schafer, one of his earliest backers.)
And B.J. Upton, whose early start made him a free agent before most 28-year-olds, shows just how valuable that combination can be on the open market. The St. Louis Cardinals should be glad Jay didn't reach the majors until, at 25, he showed up fully formed.