In 2017, Angels left fielders have provided the third-worst offensive production at the position in the majors—and that’s an improvement. Over the previous two years, they ranked dead last. With yesterday’s acquisition of the power-hitting Justin Upton, however, that’s all about to change.
Upton earned his fourth All-Star Game selection this year, and the 30-year-old is in the midst of his best offensive season since 2011. He inked a six-year, $132.75 million deal with the Tigers prior to last season, and he came out of the gates very slowly, slashing a poor .235/.289/.381 (77 wRC+, where 100 is league average) in the first half of 2016.
But Upton turned it on after the All-Star break, posting a .916 OPS and crushing 22 homers in the second half. And he’s continued his hot hitting this year, as his 138 wRC+ ranks second among American League left fielders while his 28 home runs rank first.
For perspective, Upton’s 28 homers this year are more than Angels left fielders have hit in the last three seasons combined. And over his last 162 games played, Upton has hit .284/.369/.592 (153 wRC+) with 46 big flies. Angels left fielders over that span? .242/.315/.355 (84 wRC+) with nine home runs.
He’s not just an asset in the batter’s box, either; Upton is also a valuable defender and baserunner. Since the start of 2015, Upton has racked up 19 Defensive Runs Saved, which is tied for fourth-most among all left fielders. Additionally, he has stolen at least 10 bases in a season five times, including this year, and FanGraphs’ baserunning metric has rated him positively every year of his career.
In short, the Angels filled a position that has long plagued them with one of the sport’s best players. And if you needed further proof of that, Upton’s 4.1 Wins Above Replacement are tied for sixth in the American League, giving the club three players in the top six (Mike Trout is second and Andrelton Simmons is fourth).
Of course, a player of Upton’s caliber never comes for free, and the Angels had to hand over right-handed pitcher Grayson Long (and a player to be named later or cash) in order to pry the left fielder from Detroit. A third-round pick in 2015, Long was the ninth-best prospect in the Angels farm system, per MLB Pipeline.
Long has spent most of his 2017 in Double-A, where he’s posted impressive numbers. In 121 2⁄3 innings across 23 starts, Long owns a 2.52 ERA, a 3.07 FIP, and a solid 2.92 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Still, he isn’t expected to materialize into much more than a back-of-the-rotation starter. That’s valuable, but the Angels have a number of pitchers of his ilk, so it isn’t a big loss.
To make room in the outfield for their new slugger, the Angels dealt their incumbent, Cameron Maybin, to the Astros, replacing one former Tiger with another. The Angels traded for Maybin in November and at one point, he looked like the solution to the Angels’ left field problems.
At the end of June, Maybin carried a .356 OBP in addition to 24 stolen bases while playing quality defense and providing a spark at the top of the order. But since the beginning of July, Maybin has hit just .184 with four extra base hits in 112 plate appearances.
Whether it was due to the injuries he battled this year or just plain old regression, Maybin simply wasn’t cutting it anymore, and receiving hardly any production from such a vital offensive position was preventing the Angels from separating themselves from the crowded pack of Wild Card contenders.
The Angels have scored the fourth-fewest runs in the AL this year, so Upton’s presence in the middle of the order has the chance to turn a feeble offense into a formidable one. And if you’re doubting the impact one player can have on a lineup, look no further than the 2015 Mets, who went from one of the league’s worst offenses to one of its best with the addition of Yoenis Cespedes and a couple of complementary players.
Don’t forget, the Angels acquired Brandon Phillips yesterday, too, and C.J. Cron and Luis Valbuena have turned their seasons around in the second half, giving this lineup quite a bit of depth.
But one of the most fascinating things about this trade is Upton’s contract. It’s the reason the cost was so low, and it’s the reason this trade could either impact the Angels for just the next month (or two; hopefully two) or the next four years.
Upton’s contract includes an opt-out clause following this season, presenting an interesting decision for the outfielder. Upton would be one of the top bats available this winter, so it is very possible that a team would give him more than the four years and $88.5 million remaining on his current deal. However, it is also conceivable that an offer like that never turns up and Upton is forced to settle for a lesser contract, as several sluggers did last offseason.
Either way, the Angels are in good shape. If Upton opts out, the Angels added an impact player in an attempt to make a push for a postseason berth with little long-term consequence. They would then be free to attempt to sign Upton to a cheaper deal or pursue another hitter such as J.D. Martinez or Mike Moustakas this offseason.
If he decides to stay, the Angels have a premier left fielder for the next four years at a reasonable annual rate. Josh Hamilton’s monster contract was the primary reason why the Angels didn’t just sign Upton themselves when he was available as a free agent a couple of years ago, but that contract comes to an end after this season, freeing up space for Upton.
Regardless of what Upton decides to do, the Angels have made their decision known: they’re all in. And they know they can win right now.
First it was Upton, then it was Phillips; the Angels filled their lineup’s two biggest holes in one memorable day. They still have Mike Trout. They still have Andrelton Simmons. But now the Angels have a star left fielder and a dependable second baseman.
The Angels have an opportunity to rise to the top of an AL Wild Card race marred by mediocrity, and they’re going for it. That much is clear.