Justin Upton, baseball’s first overall draft pick a decade ago, reaches free agency at age 28 with a solid track record of hitting for power.
Upton’s pedigree is still an important selling point, because it implies he’s yet to reach his ceiling. According to Baseball America, Upton was on scouts’ radars when he was 14 years old. After he was drafted out of high school by the Diamondbacks in ’05, BA wrote that he had “unbelievable tools” and felt that the term “five-tool prospect” sold him short. Upton was the consensus pick for first overall, after older brother B.J. (now known as Melvin) went second overall to the Rays in 2002. Justin was seen as a patient, powerful hitter, with great bat speed, plus power potential, big-time speed, and a cannon for an arm.
Ten years later, Upton has 190 home runs under his belt through age 27. Of the 30 non-active players who accomplished that feat, 17 are in the Hall of Fame. Upton has 82 home runs over the last three seasons, 17th in baseball. Among those with 1500 plate appearances in that time, Upton ranks 22nd in slugging and 18th in ISO. Power is Upton’s main calling card, and at age 28, there may be more to come. Upton is also an asset on the basepaths, as his baserunning runs above average marks can attest.
I wouldn’t call Upton one of the best players in baseball, but he is one of the game’s better outfielders. Over the last three years, his 10.6 wins above replacement ranks 18th among outfielders. He was an All-Star in 2009, ’11, and ’15, finishing fourth in the MVP voting in ’11. Upton has been durable, averaging 152 games played over the last five seasons.
As we’ve mentioned, Upton will play most of next season at age 28. The only other top 30 free agent position players who will play next year in their 20s are Jason Heyward and Colby Rasmus. Upton’s age leaves room for upside and should result in his team getting more prime years.
Let’s be honest: Upton hasn’t lived up to the mammoth expectations placed on him. He only reached 30 home runs once in his eight seasons, and that was four years ago. Power may be Upton’s strength, but fellow free agent Chris Davis has shown much more. Upton’s ability to get on base is nothing special, and one can name at least 20 hitters who have been better overall over the last three years. You can find at least 40 hitters who were better this year. Upside is nice, but if this is all Upton is, he’s a good player and not a great one.
Strikeouts are part of Upton’s game. He has whiffed in 25.8% of his plate appearances since 2013; only seven qualified hitters struck out more often. Oddly enough, all of them are either free agents or non-tender candidates.
Upton’s left field defense grades out as roughly average. Advanced metrics show he was a touch above average this year, and a touch below last year. I don’t consider it a strength or a weakness, but I felt his defense warranted mention.
Upton is expected to receive and turn down a qualifying offer from the Padres, so signing him will require draft pick forfeiture. This is not the case for one of his main market competitors, Yoenis Cespedes.
Upton was born in Norfolk, Virginia and resides in Scottsdale, Arizona with his wife. Justin grew up in a baseball family. His father Manny scouted for the Royals and White Sox, and older brother Melvin was drafted second overall in ’02. Justin battled an immaturity label early in his career, as outlined in this 2012 ESPN article by Robert Sanchez. It should be noted that he made his MLB debut at age 19. Upton signed a six-year, $51.25MM extension with the Diamondbacks in March 2010, but was traded to the Braves in January 2013. He spent 2013 and ’14 roaming the outfield alongside his brother Melvin, who had signed with Atlanta a few months prior. Then Justin was traded to the Padres in December 2014, and Melvin rejoined him after a separate deal in April.
Upton should have plenty of suitors this winter, though he does not seem likely to re-sign with the Padres. The Orioles don’t have much at the outfield corners, and could have money to spend if they lose Chris Davis. The Yankees could be a suitor if they trade Brett Gardner. The Rangers could be a potential match if they have an appetite for another large contract. The White Sox have a need in the outfield, but have never spent even $70MM on a player. The Mariners could have a spot for Upton, but he rejected a trade to Seattle in 2013. I wouldn’t rule them out, however, in the case Upton has decided the Mariners are closer to contention now than they were two years ago. I’ve heard plenty of speculation that the Giants make a good fit for Upton, though it’s possible they’ll put their resources toward pitching.
Nationals GM Mike Rizzo was the scouting director when the Diamondbacks drafted Upton first overall, but a reunion would require moving Jayson Werth to right field and Bryce Harper to center. It’s unclear whether they’d be interested in doing so. The Dodgers have almost $40MM tied up in Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier next year. Trading one of them and signing Upton (not necessarily in that order) is plausible.
The Tigers could have a spot for Upton, but they seem likely to focus on starting pitching. Same goes for the Red Sox, who would also have to move an outfielder like Jackie Bradley to make room. The Angels, Astros, and Blue Jays could seek a left field upgrade this winter, but may prefer a left-handed hitter. The Jays, as well as the Indians, were on Upton’s four-team no-trade list last winter. The Indians would likely face budget restraints with Upton, and may not want to bring him on as a right fielder anyway.
The Royals could have an opening in left field if Alex Gordon departs, but they’ve never committed more than $55MM to a player. The Cardinals have plenty of in-house replacements if Jason Heyward departs. The Mets are a tough match even if Cespedes leaves, with Curtis Granderson and Michael Conforto at the corners. The Cubs also have more of a need at center field. The Phillies have little in place at the outfield corners and could afford Upton, but it would be odd for a rebuilding club and a tough sell for the player.
Given his age, an opt-out clause should be a consideration for Upton. Agent Larry Reynolds would do well to get his client another crack at free agency at age 30 or 31, as no one would be surprised if Upton takes his game to another level and hits 40 home runs at some point. If an opt-out clause is obtained by Reynolds, I’d expect the total dollars to be reduced as a concession.
Coming off an inferior season to Chris Davis and Yoenis Cespedes, I’d expect Upton to receive a slightly lower average annual value. Plus, Upton’s age gives him a chance at a seventh year, which may also bring down the AAV. Something in the $20-22MM range could work. The end result might put all three players at a similar grand total. I’m putting Upton down for a seven-year, $147MM contract.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
If the Yankees do move Gardner I find myself torn between signing Heyward or Upton. Upton’s bat could be quite deadly in the Bronx with the need for RH power. Heyward is just so dang young and athletic. I do think that Upton will try to beat Ellsbury’s contract along with Heyward. I wonder if both will wait until later in the offseason to sign in order to maximize their value once the other has been taken off the board.
Note: I don’t think the Yankees will spend money, just talking hypothetical here 🙂
Topping Ellsbury is definitely possible. I should note for posterity that Steve Adams took the over on this contract prediction, and I think Jeff Todd felt that way too at least by a little bit.
I really don’t see being torn between Upton and Heyward…Upton hits more home runs, yes, but does nothing else better than Heyward. Heyward is a terrific outfielder, a good base-runner, a good hitter and gets on base. Upton might hit more home runs, but he’s also extremely streaky and inconsistent. He might win a game for you once a week with a long ball, but Heyward will do things more often that will help you win everyday.
Upton has 10.6 fWAR over the last 3 seasons, playing in bigtime pitchers parks. The fact that he’s merely 28 years old means we haven’t seen his peak yet – I think he’s getting 8 or 9 years and $200+M, because his peak seasons will more than likely be MVP-level if he ends up in a hitters park, and that will effectively be worth the lesser production at the end of the deal, which at age 35-36 might not even be much of a dip.
Atlanta’s not a notable pitchers’ park. SD is, of course, but actually much less in 2015 than previous years. It was only 10th best. And of course Ariz is a big hitters park. I think Justin is what he is at this point.
Disagree with that assessment entirely. Upton’s one hitting coach and hitters park away from being elite, and at 28, this is the time where that usually happens. I see his career mimicking Adrian Beltre, with a bigtime power push in his 30s.
Safeco Field may not give him the numbers he’d like to achieve either. Diamondbacks, Oriels, or even an Atlanta return might be best for him.But asking price may be too high, this is an interesting one to watch….
Not sure I agree with the statements from multiple people that he hasn’t reached his prime yet. Dude has 4,934 major league plate appearances and his numbers aren’t trending up. What more is he going to learn at this point? I think it’s safe to say Justin Upton is exactly who he seems to be.
Prime is age, not plate appearances. And yes, hitters can change and learn things to make them better at ANY age. With hitting, it could be the simplest thing, a 1% change that turns a hitter from 25 HR power to 50.
“Upton has 10.6 fWAR over the last 3 seasons, playing in bigtime pitchers parks.”
fWAR adjusts for Park Factors, FYI, so saying he compiled that number in pitcher’s parks doesn’t mean that much.
Upton’s a tough one. With so many good corner OF’s potentially on the trade market (and thus requiring much less $$ commitment) he may wait a while. I could see him being in the James Shields situation come February.
However, look to next years market, its a scant one indeed. Teams will be looking to spend money this year because next year’s market is so thin.
That is true. But still, if you have the option of trading for Jay Bruce or Carlos Gonzalez or similar, and you only have to pay them for one or two years, I’m not sure how attractive a seven year contract with Justin Upton looks. Even if you have to give up prospects in a trade.
Ok youre down on Upton, got it. Not many else are.
Pretty sure I have a mainstream opinion of him. You are very high on his upside, which is an odd thing to say about a 28 year old with as many PA’s as him. But maybe you’re right. Physical prime, btw, is around 27.
Right, its technically 25-35, but in baseball its usually 27-32. Upton’s never been a health risk, unlike Heyward, but who also I think is going to get $200M. I see no problem in Upton as a $25M/yr man, even if you don’t think he’s going have a career year in the next 5 years. I think otherwise.
I am also a bit puzzled by the concept of upside in connection with a mature free agent. Is it supposed to mean he might be better than his stats indicate, or he is likely to become a better player than he is now over the next few years?
Braves Fan 85
After watching him in atl I am down on uoton.
giving up the prospects is the bigger issue.. teams just don’t want to part with top prospects anymore… Gonzo and Bruce would require quite a bit in return, and they are not cheap or in team control for more than 2 years either…
This is possible, but as CJ said below (or above haha), the following years market could play a huge factor in how teams move this offseason. If a team is sold on Upton being their huge offseason acquisition then they may move aggressively early and give him an offer he cannot refuse (Godfather style).
How nice a 1-4 of Herrera, Hernandez, Upton and Franco would look. Solid start to a rebuild. I doubt Klentak is going to make such a splash though.
I would think the Yankees, Orioles and Tigers would all be on board for him, among others.
Signing Justin Upton would set the Phillies rebuild back years. If the Phillies are going to spend money on an outfielder I’d rather it be Heyward. Upton hits more home runs, but is too streaky and inconsistent. He’s a more athletic version of Ryan Howard. Jayson Heyward is a better defensive version of Bobby Abreu (perhaps with a little less power).
You just compared Ryan Howard and Justin Upton…
Upton has put up more WAR last season than Howard has in in the last 7 years.
Upton would instantly become the Phillies best outfielder, and probably their best overall player. You’d get like 5 years of prime Justin Upton for 50M less than Heyward, and when Heyward’s defense goes south, he loses half his value.
“You just compared Ryan Howard and Justin Upton…”
Yes, I did compare Upton to Howard…but not to the current Howard. I am comparing him to the Howard that the Phillies signed to a massive contract. THAT Howard hit more home runs, got on base at a higher rate, had a higher OPS+ and had 5 top ten MVP finishes. My point was that Howard was the type of threat Upton is…a power guy who doesn’t do much else (Upton may have more talent, but he doesn’t DO much else), and that turned out extremely poorly.
“Upton would instantly become the Phillies best outfielder”
Doesn’t say much. So would the Cardinals outfield, the Pirates outfield, the Red Sox outfield, the Yankees outfield, and on and on. Just because the Phillies have a putrid outfield doesn’t mean they should overpay for a guy who has failed to live up to expectations for a decade.
“You’d get like 5 years of prime Justin Upton for 50M less than Heyward, and when Heyward’s defense goes south, he loses half his value.”
But if you’re paying for 5 years of prime Upton…and this is it…is it worth it? He’s not a superstar; he’s a good player who has the talent of a superstar but has never lived up to it. As for Heyward…he does a lot more than play defense. He’s also a better all around hitter than Upton, he’s a better base-runner and since you like the stat WAR so much, Heyward averages 2+WAR per season better than Upton and is two years younger.
Heyward is the better option.
The only thing Howard does well is hit HR, which he no longer does at a better rate than Upton. Calling Upton a ‘more athletic Ryan Howard’ discounts the fact that they play different positions and that Upton is (by far) a better fielder, runner, and overall hitter. Upton is so much better of a player now than Howard. Howard hasn’t put up a WAR like Upton’s 2015 in 6+ years.
“Upton is so much better of a player now than Howard. Howard hasn’t put up a WAR like Upton’s 2015 in 6+ years”
Obviously you didn’t understand my point of the comparison being the Howard that signed the mega contract. That Howard was a better hitter, better home run hitter, and what he did with his bat far outweighed his deficiencies on defense. Upton’s better glove (which is nothing special) and base-running do not make him a better overall/impactful player that Howard was when he signed the contract.
If neither of the people who responded to your comparison understood it, then it’s probably no fault of ours.
But anyway, they have entirely different skill sets and play different positions, so I don’t know why the comparison was even made.
Or perhaps it was their/your fault.
But what entirely different skill set? Upton is a streaky, inconsistent hitter who hits home runs, strikes out too much, doesn’t play great defense and isn’t a major threat on the base paths. What is the “entirely” different skill set that I’m missing?
I think the Rangers would give a shot at him
Upton’s ability to get on base is nothing special….Yet he is expected to get a seven-year, $147MM contract. SMH.
My problem is if a guy isn’t that special, why should he get paid like he is.
That is what makes no sense about baseball. We all pay all this money, it’s guaranteed and for what? The TV deals are outrageous. Ticket prices are outrageous. It’s just simply outrageous. I mean I wanted people to get paid, but paying someone that is pretty good, but not a standout anything over 20 million a year is a complete and total shakedown.
Couldn’t agree more. The whole time I’m reading the article I’m like wow, what a great honest assessment of this player, sounds like a 15mil/yr type player being generous. Then bam 7/147
Carlos Beltran got 15 MM a year at age 36. Shin-Soo Choo got 17 MM a year at age 30. Do you really think Justin Upton isn’t a better player?
That doesn’t mean either is anything less than massive overpays, add Fielder, Ellsbury.. Sandoval.. Could continue on and on just with FA from last 2-3 years you know..
I prefer to take P.T Barnum’s outlook on why 1-2 owners have this weird infatuation with a particular FA every season and wil continue to bid on that one when the price gets absurd, well beyond overpaying and to the point there is no chance it will ever work out and become a positive.. Even fair deal if the player has an excellent career for the term.. “There is one born every day” and Mr Barnum wasn’t talking about customers to his circus either..
FA salaries sound ridiculous but owners and the league are making more money than ever. It is just a question of how the outrageous amount of money is split up.
im a padres fan and they need to resign upton. they need him in that lineup because him and kemp only had 1 year together if kemp continues hitting like he did the 2nd half then him and upton would produce alot and the padres need to get rid of a couple pitchers to get a shortstop and need to sign or trade for a first baseman i think the top priorities for the padres are sign upton trade for a shortstop and sign or trade for a first baseman
And where would they get the money to do all that? The Padres have a lot of money tied up with kemp, shields, m upton, and kimbrel. As a fan I hope we go into full blown rebuilding mode
How about Starlin Castro for Tyson Ross?
I feel like the Padres could do better than that
I feel like the Cubs could get more for castro
Heh. Are you kidding? Cubs fans are very persistent in trying to trade their barely-above-replacement SS (who is going to make $8m next year) for big time assets. Maybe the Padres are that dumb, but I kind of guess they keep their 4+ fWAR pitcher who isn’t even arb eligible yet.
Castro is the kind of player you try and find a home for. He’s at about zero marginal value, a less than average major league SS who should probably be a utility player. You don’t trade him for a guy like Tyson Ross.
If I’m aj preller I’m starting the conversation with schwarber. There’s no spot for him on the Cubs and the Padres could stick him at first
To give him credit/add value to his stock, Castro did put up a .961 OPS after he was moved to 2B. Would like to see another 3 months of that and then his value could be sky high.
Wow, four “Up” votes for a comment saying Tyson Ross isn’t even arbitration eligible yet, despite the fact that he made $1,980,000 in 2014 (his *first* year of eligibility) and $5,250,000 in 2015 (his *second* year of eligibility) and three weeks ago was projected by this site to make $10,000,000 in 2016 in his *third* year of eligibility. (Not to mention his *fourth* year which will come in 2017.)
I get agreeing with the correct notion that Tyson Ross has way more trade value than Starlin Castro, but why support such an egregiously inaccurate comment?
Who wants Crawford? Anybody, 60% discount
Needs to be 90%.
Cubs will only go after Heyward if they trade Soler for pitching
What are the chances of the mariners making a splash and signing either Upton or Heyward?
About the same as the chances of them signing Robinson Cano; unlikely but anything can happen.
Kimbrel, Taylor Lindsey, Casey kelly and Tyson Ross for Yunel Escabar, Wilmer Difo, Blake Treinen, Brian Goodwin
Kimbrel steps in as the closer in Washington as they are most likely going to trade Storen and Papelbon, Tyson Ross provides a steady starter for the middle of their rotation, Casey Kelly adds immediate depth and Lindsey adds a potential second base option or depth.
Meanwhile, the Padres add Escabar to play shortstop in the short term while bringing in Wilmer Difo for the potential long term at shortstop. Blake Goodwin could be up mid year ready to contribute at at-least a platoon level and Blake Treinen a cheap, cost controlled hard throwing righty with potential back end of the pen material in his arsenal.
Why would the Padres trade a good SP and an elite closer for a 2 year SS, a B level prospect, a good-not-great reliever and a AAAA guy?
Taylor Lindsey could have been claimed off waivers a few months ago, and Casey Kelly just isn’t good.
To get both of Ross and Kimbrel in the same deal, you almost have to part with 1, if not 2 of Giolito, Michael Taylor, or Trea Turner.
The Orioles seem like a great fit. He works out with AJ with family in VA. His bat would play well in OPACY batting behind Machado, Jones, and hopefully still Davis. I know it’s impossible but I have a feeling the Os go big this year. Like Davis, Heyward/Upton, Price, and another pitcher.
I highly doubt they are increasing their payroll by another 100MM per year. I’d say you’re lucky if they get one of those.
It would be 75 not 100 and they only have 70 on books for 2016 increasing their total payroll to 145, not outrageous increase with the MASN TV money flowing in.
He is gonna get overpayed
Dont ask me why, but I just think he ends up in Texas. With Hamilton and Beltre, on decline, they’ll need a young, big bopper to complement Fielder..
The Phillies should end up with either Heyward or Upton, as far as it being a “tough sell” – CBP is still a hitter’s delight and Upton would speed up the rebuild and isn’t that the objective? The Phillies have the greatest need for a LF and can offer him the most money… Convincing Upton or Heyward isn’t that big of a “hard sell” when the fact is, because the Phillies have the most money to offer anyone, and as weak as the NL East has been, its not hard to sell a “Quick” rebuild. The Cubs were in the same position a year ago when they went on to convince FA’s to trust in their rebuild. It worked. The Cubs acquired Lester and Fowler to fill their main needs, and traded for Montero then allowed their rookies to play (Bryant, Schwarber, Soler and Russell) – I see a lot of the same with the Phillies.
Because of the depth of quality and young FA’s THIS off-season, the Phillies and their new GM should make some splashes and if they do… Then they will be looking very good – sooner than expected.
(Of course in addition to a LF, they will need to sign 2 very good starters)
I have never seen a team with so much success and yet so committed to not wanting to spend more on their roster than the New York Mets. You make it to the World Series and yet you still do not want to spend money on a big time outfielder, let alone your playoff MVP. Seriously? I find it a shame.
I don’t know if I’m the only one confused about this, but why in the world would the Jays go after Upton? They already have an abundance of capable outfielders with Pillar, Revere, Bautista, Pompey, and Saunders, why would Alex even think about offering Upton a deal?