A couple of months ago, Jon Heyman of Fanrag Sports reported that Justin Upton opting out of his contract was “not happening,” according to an unnamed GM. At the end of this season, Upton can opt out of the four years and $88.4 million left on his contract and test free agency again.
At the time of Heyman’s report, Upton was hitting .242/.351/.477 for a good 120 wRC+. His career numbers with the Tigers looked less impressive at the time. Since joining the team the year before, he hit .245/.319/.467 for a 108 wRC+. Adding to that the fact that he would be going into his age-30 season, and one could understand why Upton would not want to opt out. However, things have happened in the two months since then. Not only that, but the above paragraph obscures an important caveat about Upton’s 2016 performance.
If I were to show you the stats from Upton’s first and second halves last year, you might think that I was showing you two different players. It was a gargantuan difference of almost 100 points of wOBA! His performance was especially poor during the first two months of 2016, hitting .217/.264/.326 and striking out 36.5 percent of the time. Amazingly, he put up those numbers with a .336 BABIP! He has always been a high BABIP guy, but one rarely sees such a player put up such poor numbers. Crazy things happen in small sample sizes.
Upton was a league average hitter from June 2016 through the All-Star break, and then turned into vintage Upton for the rest of the year. He hit .260/.337/.579 for an excellent 142 wRC+. Now if we go back to when Heyman made his report to the present, Upton has been hitting .311/.383/.539 and has struck out a third less of the time than he did prior.
So far, we have dealt a bit too much with small sample sizes and arbitrary endpoints, both of which can lead to inaccurate conclusions. Let’s take a look at a more rational approach to analyzing Upton’s time with the Tigers.
I believe it is safe to assume that Upton’s first half in 2016 was an outlier. It stands in stark contrast to his career numbers, so it is possible that his poor performance was the result of other factors. He did suffer an ankle injury early in spring training that year, so perhaps it was worse than we thought, or perhaps it was another injury entirely that he hid from the public. Maybe it was soft factors or something personal. We can only speculate.
We get a better look at Upton’s true talent if we look at his performance since the second half of last year, where he has hit .271/.355/.539 with a good walk rate and 38 HR. A 137 wRC+ seems a bit high for his true talent given that he has not hit that well since 2014, when he was coming off a four-year run that saw him hit .276/.355/.479 for a 128 wRC+. Steamer has Upton’s true talent level at .268/.349/.500, and ZiPS has it slightly less than that. Interestingly enough, those triple-slash lines are his in-season numbers with his BABIP normalized.
While Upton is not exactly Alex Gordon in left field, I do not see him moving from there anytime in the next few years. So that leaves us with a left fielder who is going to be 30 years old whose true talent lies in the range of .350-.360 wOBA. Upton’s wOBA at the time of Heyman’s article was... .352. So realistically, despite the great two-month run that Upton is enjoying, nothing has changed.
It is definitely risky for Upton to opt out. It is not some obvious no-brainer like with Yoenis Céspedes last year. Front offices are very smart these days, and they will make any decisions on Upton based on what they believe his true talent is, which is a bit less than what he is hitting right now. I am guessing that his agent will advise him of this.
Upton’s best comparisons from last year are Dexter Fowler and the aforementioned Yoenis Céspedes, both of whom were a year older than Upton will be when he hits free agency. Céspedes got four years and $110 million even though he was 31 and injury prone. That might look promising for Upton, but Céspedes had other factors in his favor: He was already popular with teammates and fans, and he was by the far the best offensive contributor on a team that struggled to score runs. Dexter Fowler got five years and $82.5 million, which does not look so good for Upton even before you consider that Fowler is also a center fielder and a good baserunner.
One point in Upton’s favor is that the upcoming free agent class for outfielders is not very deep. It is headed by Lorenzo Cain and, coincidentally, his former teammate J.D. Martínez. Jarrod Dyson will be a free agent, too, but there is a drop off after that.
Martínez is almost the exact same age as Upton is — seriously, they’re just four days apart — and has been raking for four years. He is going to be more highly sought after than Upton and is going to get paid, especially since he will be ineligible for a qualifying offer. Cain has the benefit of being a good defensive center fielder, but he was also a late bloomer and is going into his age-32 season. My prediction is that he gets substantially less than the $88 million that Upton could opt out of. Dyson is a nice 2-3 WAR player, but he is about to turn 33 and all his value is in his legs. While he could be a nice value signing, Upton is the better player.
FanGraphs managing editor Dave Cameron made an excellent point about the Martínez trade that applies here: There just is not a big demand for left fielders among contenders because a lot of them are good at that position, which is why the Tigers could not get much for him. Here are the competitive teams who could use a left fielder this offseason.
- The Diamondbacks only have Martínez on a rental, so they will need a left fielder this offseason. I would not at all be surprised if they re-signed him.
- The Giants need a left fielder very badly. If they think they can bounce back next season, Upton would be a great target. The problem is that they already have one of the highest payrolls in baseball. Matt Cain is coming off the books, but unless Johnny Cueto joins him the Giants will likely be hesitant to add a left fielder who will probably be looking for at least $100 million.
- The Nationals are going to lose Jayson Werth, but Adam Eaton will be back, and they have a top prospect in Victor Robles coming up through the system.
- The Rockies are going to lose Carlos González, but they could get David Dahl back, and there is still a chance that Ian Desmond could move to left field. They seldom hand out big contracts anyway.
- One could make an argument for the Angels if they choose not to pick up Cameron Maybin’s option. However, the team might be hesitant to hand Upton the big bucks with their poor track record of giving out big contracts. Maybin is a solid player who will be making only $9 million anyway.
The rival GM that Heyman cited is likely very well aware of the facts contained in this article because it is his job to know these thing, which is likely why he said Upton’s opt-out is “not happening.” The only way I can see Upton opting out is if he decides that he does not want to be a part of a rebuilding franchise and decides that it is worth the risk to join a better team. Given everything laid out here, however, it is easier to see Upton doing worse than a four-year, $88 million deal on the open market than it is to see him do better. The demand is not very high, and teams might want to spend their free agent dollars on other positions.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.