When Billy Eppler finalized the trade for Justin Upton to solidify left field for the wild card push, he had already calculated that pitching prospect Grayson Long was a fair price to pay for a one-month rental. Acquiring a bat as potent us Upton’s at the non-waiver deadline would likely have cost a much steeper price in prospects for the extra month of his services. Whatever your opinion of Grayson Long, he is not likely to come back and make the Angels regret “going for it” in the final month of the 2017 season.
The caveat, of course, is this may not be a rental at all. With four years and $88.5 million remaining on his contract, Upton controls his own destiny this offseason. Were he to elect to exercise his opt-out clause, Upton would immediately become one of the most desirable options in an underwhelming free agent class, led by J.D. Martinez, along with Kansas City’s trio of free agents: Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer. At his last crack at free agency, Upton did not sign his $132.75 million deal until January, competing in a flashier free agent pool that included Jason Heyward, Chris Davis and Yoenis Céspedes.
Now two years older, Upton is not likely to fetch the same deal this offseason, even if he is considered the top of his class this time around. Of course, all he has to do is match what remains on his current deal to make an opt-out worthwhile. Will that happen in the current market?
One only has to observe what happened a year later, after many of those 2015 deals quickly looked regrettable. Edwin Encarnación hoped to land a nine-figure deal before settling for three years and $60 million from Cleveland. Former Angels sluggers Kendrys Morales and Mark Trumbo took three year deals for less than $40 million each.
These are not perfect examples, as Encarnación is four years older than Upton while Trumbo and Morales are nowhere near his pedigree. But it does show that front offices have become gun shy with handing out long-term deals for players who only contribute with their bats. Even a more well-rounded player, such as Dexter Fowler, earned “only” $82.5 million over five years after a season similar to Upton’s 2017.
Perhaps the best hope for Upton would be to look at the $110 million over four years Yoenis Céspedes managed to pull out of the Mets after opting out of his own deal last year. While Céspedes was a year older than Upton is now when he negotiated that deal, he was coming off a dominant two-year stretch and had a desperate Mets’ front office over a barrel to lock up their most important player. No other team was willing to pay Céspedes that kind of money and the injuries that have dogged him this season are proof enough they were wise not to.
So how much could Upton potentially earn this offseason, should he choose to opt out? Martinez is the only available player with a better bat, though as a defensive liability, Upton should rightly expect to land a bigger deal. If we consider Martinez to be a younger version of Encarnación, it stands to reason that he would earn a similar $20 million per season, with a year or two added on due to his age advantage.
Of course, when you consider how little Detroit was able to receive in return for Martinez on the trade market, it would seem that the trend is continuing to head towards teams being even more frugal when shopping for bats than they were last year. I still think Martinez exceeds the $60 million Encarnación signed for last year, but not likely by much.
It is possible that Upton manages to squeeze one extra year out of some team on the open market, but it seems far more likely that he would only match the four years and $88.5 million he already has in hand. It also would not surprise anyone if he ends up taking a slight pay cut, considering how free agent prices have only reduced since that epic 2015-16 offseason. Savvy front offices can look at Fangraphs just as easily as we can and see Upton’s .351 batting average on balls in play is likely driving his best season since 2011. He is a good hitter, not a great one. He will be worth the rest of his contract, but anything beyond what he is already earning will likely be an overpay.
If Upton and his agent come to a similar conclusion, his decision to opt out really comes down to where he wants to play. According to Jon Morosi, he told the Tigers of his intention to opt out due to their re-build, prompting the trade to the Angels. This is telling, as it shows he was willing to risk a pay cut in order to play on a competitive team.
For Upton, the next month (or more?) will be a feeling out period to see whether or not he would like to call Anaheim home for the next four years.
“I have a family and they have to be comfortable,” Upton said. “I have to be comfortable. I have never set foot in the Angels clubhouse. I don’t know what it’s like. I don’t know anything. I’m in it with an open mind. I’m excited. All those things will come into play. It’s something we’ll sit down and talk about, hopefully after the World Series, and make a decision on.”
According to the OC Register, Eppler was told two years ago by Upton’s agent that playing in Southern California appealed to him. Upton, you may recall, spent a season in San Diego before signing with the Tigers.
Financially, Upton stands little to lose or gain by opting out. At this point in his career, most teams likely view him as a complementary player rather than a center piece and are comfortable with where his salary currently stands. This is really his second crack at free agency, with the Angels getting a one-month head start on selling him on life in Anaheim. Eppler is, as always, pragmatic.
“We made the deal with an eye to what impact it could bring to our roster (now), but also it’s understood that you have be comfortable with the future,” Eppler said. “He controls his fate.”
Should Upton choose to exercise his opt-out clause, it seems unlikely Arte Moreno signs off on offering him more than the near $90 million already has in hand. This deal does tip Arte’s hand that he is finally comfortable signing off on a major payroll commitment now that Josh Hamilton’s dead money is finally off the books.
If Upton chooses to stick around, consider it the Angels getting a head start on next year’s free agent race, taking the best position player immediately off the board. If he walks, expect them to be in the mix for Martinez, Moustakas, or even Lorenzo Cain, were he willing to move to left field. There are also intriguing names on the pitching side, led by Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta.
For now, of course, the focus is on getting their money’s worth out of Upton and solidifying a spot as a wild card team. Will a deep playoff run be enough to convince Upton the best place for him to get a crack at a World Series title be right here, alongside the best player in the world? As Angels’ fans, we should keep our fingers crossed the answer to that is “yes.”