Angels outfielder Justin Upton — if that sounds odd, you might want to click this link — faces an interesting decision after the end of the season. He already has the right to $88.5MM in guaranteed salary for the next four seasons, but can choose instead to opt out of the contract and take his talents onto the open market once again.
Entering the season, the latter course seemed less than likely. After all, Upton managed only a .246/.310/.465 batting line in 2016, his worst-ever full-season batting line. Though he did swat 31 home runs, matching a personal best, Upton was at or near career-worst levels in strikeouts (28.6%) and walks (8.0%). As the second consecutive year in which his output with the bat had declined, there was cause for some concern.
Needless to say, though, Upton has turned things around thus far in 2017. He’s currently slashing .279/.362/.542 and has already knocked 28 balls out of the yard through 520 trips to the plate. Though his strikeouts haven’t dipped, he’s now walking at an 11.0% clip that’s better than his career average, all while sporting a personal-high 44.1% hard-hit rate. And Upton has rated as a quality performer with the glove out in left field.
That’s not where Upton’s case for opting out ends, however. While he is now in his 11th season in the majors — which seems hard to believe — the slugger only just turned 30 a few days ago. And since he has previously received a qualifying offer (and also now has been traded mid-season), he won’t be eligible to receive a QO — meaning there’s no risk of his market being dragged down by draft compensation.
There are plenty of comps that suggest Upton could well out-earn what he already has in hand. On the high side, we have seen several somewhat older outfielders take down nine-figure guarantees: Yoenis Cespedes (four years, $110MM entering age-31 season), Shin-Soo Choo (seven years, $130MM entering age-31 season), and Josh Hamilton (five years, $125MM entering age-32 season) all come to mind. On the lower side, there’s plenty of reason to think that Upton can beat Dexter Fowler’s five-year, $82.5MM deal or the $88MM over four years that Hanley Ramirez received. Of course, Upton himself secured a $132.75MM guarantee before the 2016 season; though he was two years younger, he also was coming off of a less-impressive campaign.
That said, there’s no denying that there’s risk in casting himself back into free agency. Upton may not find it worth his while if he and his agents do not anticipate offers that are all that much more significant. It’s somewhat difficult to forecast the market for power hitters given the recent surge in offense (and home runs, in particular). Last year, several big bats came in somewhat under expectations; this fall, there’ll be competition (especially former teammate J.D. Martinez, but also potentially including older players and possible trade targets).
There’s another month left on the year, and that could matter, too. Upton will have to stay healthy and remain at least mostly productive to have the best potential free-agent case. He might also conceivably just end up deciding he feels comfortable in his new digs. But it’s a good time for a prediction: do you think Upton will opt out? (Link for app users.)