Justin Upton is a great baseball player by any standard. Offensively, he carries identical career OPS+ and wRC+ scores of 121 if you like advanced stats. He’s hit an average of 30 home runs a year if you want to simplify it. And he plays a solid left field and can run the bases.
Justin has a clause in his contract that allows him to opt out of the remaining 4 years and $88.5 million owed. Angels GM Billy Eppler is in active discussions with Upton to form one of the best outfields in the league: Mike Trout, Justin Upton, Kole Calhoun.
Over the last three years, Upton has averaged 4 WAR per baseball reference. At $7 million per WAR, he would need to only put up about 3 WAR per year to justify the expense and he could provide some surplus value.
But the Angels would be better off if Upton decides to hit the open market. After all, he can’t pitch, play first base, or play second base but he can tie up payroll that could otherwise be used to fill those positions.
And as Jessica pointed out, we aren’t quite as flush as people think.
Who Plays Left Field?
The perpetual question for an Angels fan. While it would be nice to pencil in Upton for four years, this free agent class does offer some intriguing candidates.
Jarrod Dyson is a burner who would make up for some of Upton’s oWAR with plenty of dWAR and base running. He has averaged 3 WAR per year with 1.7 dWAR per year the last three seasons. He has also averaged 28 stolen bases over that span.
Dyson can likely be had on a 2 year deal with an option for less than half of Upton’s annual cost.
The real prize is Lorenzo Cain. He can cover center, hit lead off (.363 OBP last year, .342 career) and steal plenty of bases. He’ll be more expensive than Dyson but will likely cost less than $22 million per year Upton would command.
Keep in mind, the outfield is the one area the Angels farm system is likely to contribute at the big league level in the next couple of years.
Can Second Base Not Suck?
Another perpetual question. Well, if we have $22 million dedicated to solving left field, solving second base becomes a lot more difficult. The free agent market is not all that inspiring and the trade market is difficult as Eppler only has a handful of marketable prospects to trade.
Rahul did a great rundown of options in this column. People seem to love Dee Gordon. To get him, we’ll need to eat his entire salary and send back some talent. Ian Kinsler? He has a contract, too. The more salary the Angels absorb, the less talent Eppler needs to send out.
My favorite option is Zack Cozart on a free agent deal. Doesn’t require talent, but it does require money. He has averaged 3.3 WAR over the last 3 years. A positional switch and more normal power numbers will likely drop that closer to 2 WAR for the next couple of years, but second base has been so horrible here that a 2 WAR season would almost be like adding another All Star.
An extra $5-10 million not spent on left field would go a long way here and likely cover most, if not all, of either Gordon or Cozart’s salary.
2-3 WAR from Dyson plus 2-3 WAR from Gordon/Cozart will likely cost about what 4 WAR from just Upton will cost, but it fills 2 spots instead of one.
Third Base? First Base? Innings Eater? Bullpen Arm?
The pitching market is murky and likely pricey. I’m not sure if Eppler will want to dip his toes into that market, but if so he’ll need payroll flexibility.
Sadly, it is better if the first great left fielder we’ve seen in a decade decides to hit the open market. $22 million can likely get us a decent left fielder AND a solid second baseman, and maybe leave a bit of change left over. There are simply too many holes on this current roster.
We’ve all seen what happens to an offense with multiple black holes in it. Sliding Upton between Trout and Pujols looks great until 6-9 are hitting at Mathis levels and the Angels are essentially giving up 2 or 3 innings per game by batting guys who won’t contribute offensively.
Of course, only Arte knows the true budget. But we’ve seen what happens when he spends too much of it on a left fielder and leaves the GM to go dumpster diving to fill other spots.