Al Avila’s tenure as general manager of the Tigers is less than six months old, but in that time he has managed to turn over more than one third of the team’s roster from 2015. The addition of Upton represents the team’s biggest offseason move in terms of salary, contract length, and overall shock value, but to many analysts Upton is just the sort of impact bat the team needed to continue competing for titles in the near future.
The first overall pick in the 2005 draft, Upton made his MLB debut in 2007 at the tender age of 19, and he has since been invited to three All-star games. He owns a career .271/.352/.473 triple slash line, has hit 190 home runs in 1184 games, and has been one of the ten best offensive outfielders in baseball over the last three seasons. Upton has solid-average speed, with 115 stolen bases in 159 tries, and has proven to be a good overall baserunner throughout his career. He consistently ranks as an average or slightly below-average fielder, so while it’s unlikely he’ll offer much value defensively, he’s also unlikely to be a liability in the field. That all adds up to a player who in approximately eight seasons has accumulated roughly 25-26 wins above replacement, and figures to produce at least 3-4 WAR for the next few years.
So why then does a 28-year-old outfielder with a strong track record of success, in the theoretical prime of his career, last on the free-agent market until mid-January? Part of it is the asking price, certainly. While the nearly $133 million overall price tag and $22+ million annual salary are appropriate for the current market, that sort of deal is too rich for most teams in the Majors. But another factor may be the lingering perception of Upton as a disappointment. That seems odd to say about a player whose production has been so solid, but many analysts believe Upton has the pure talent to compete for MVPs on a regular basis, and he has only approached that level once, in 2011.
But that promise still remains, and the nature of the deal, with its de rigueur opt-out clause giving Upton the opportunity to be a free agent again after just two years, means the Tigers should expect very good production in 2016 and 2017. Even if he doesn’t produce at an MVP level, Upton certainly fills the team’s Cespedes-sized hole in left field, which, due to the Tigers more pressing needs, was seemingly impossible at the beginning of the offseason.
And perhaps Yoenis Cespedes can be a constructive comparison for what Tigers fans may be able to expect from Upton. The powerful Cuban outfielder had been a solid player in his first three seasons in the Majors, but he broke out in a huge way last year, posting career highs in nearly every offensive category in his age-29 season. Like Upton, Cespedes is a career .271 hitter, and both players own a career 121 wRC+, meaning their offensive production has been roughly 20% better than the average player. Cespedes is considered a better defender, is probably a slightly better baserunner, and he strikes less often than Upton, but Upton walks much more often, and his career on-base percentage is 33 points higher. So any Tigers fans sad about Cespedes not returning should have their fears assuaged: there’s a good chance they are getting a younger version of a very similar player.
Now, the acquisition of Upton is not without its downside. The most notable effect is the Tigers blasting past the luxury tax threshold by more than $20 million, meaning they will be taxed 17.5% on every dollar over the $189 million limit. While that only directly affects Mike Ilitch, the cost will likely get passed along to the fans in some capacity. The Upton signing also means the Tigers lose their third round in pick in the 2016 draft, and their overall bonus pool to sign draft picks is lowered by roughly $700,000. And finally, this deal makes it unlikely the Tigers will sign J.D. Martinez to an extension. Martinez is four days older than Upton, has been more productive than Upton over the last two seasons, and if he were a free agent, he would likely be in line for a very similar deal. These are all small prices to pay, however, if Upton helps the Tigers and Ilitch get the World Series title he so clearly covets.
The Justin Upton signing does not change the overall calculus of the 2016 Tigers: their ultimate fortune remains largely dependent on the health and effectiveness of Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Victor Martinez, and Anibal Sanchez. But with all the offseason additions of Upton, Jordan Zimmermann, and seven other players, the team has given itself enough wiggle room to avoid the sort of collapse they saw in 2015, and enough talent to compete for a World Series title in 2016.