What's He Really Worth: Why is Justin Upton's market not developing?
Having taken a look at Yoenis Cespedes’s earning potential on Tuesday and with Alex Gordon re-signing with the Royals at a steep discount on Wednesday, we finish our survey of the remaining free-agent outfielders today with this off-season’s final installment of "What’s He Really Worth?" Today’s subject: Justin Upton, who is four years younger than Gordon in terms of playing age and two years younger than Cespedes, whom he more strongly resembles in terms of his ability at the plate.
Like Cespedes, Upton’s calling card is his raw power. He is just 10 home runs away from 200 for his career, has averaged 27 home runs per season over the last three years and has slugged .477 in his eight full major league seasons. Both Upton and Cespedes have hit .271 in their major league careers, but Upton draws walks at a better-than-league-average rate, giving him an extra 33 points of on-base percentage for his career compared to Cespedes. But that apparent patience masks the fact that Upton strikes out more than even Cespedes and makes significantly less contact.
As hard as he swings, Cespedes has struck out in less than 21% of his major league plate appearances, and over the last two seasons, he has made contact with more than 77% of the pitches at which he has swung (up from 72% in his first two years). By comparison, over the last three seasons, Upton has struck out in just shy of 26% of his plate appearances and made contact with less than 70% of the pitches at which he has swung. In both categories, Upton was worse in his age-25–27 seasons than in his age-23 and age-24 seasons—in those earlier years, he struck out in just 19% of his plate appearances and made contact with 74.2% of the pitches at which he swung, numbers closer to Cespedes’s.
Cespedes is also a better all-around athlete and, in practice, a better fielder, in part due to his elite throwing arm, but such a comparison can mask Upton’s abilities. Cespedes may be faster, but Upton, who is plenty athletic in his own right, has been the better base stealer in his career, swiping 18 or more bases five times, including 19 steals at a solid 76% success rate in 2015. Still, Upton is generally below average in the field, which undermines his value on the bases. The result is that Upton’s contributions with the bat are typically the sum total of his value, and though he is still just 28, there is little reason to expect that to change as he ages.
Speaking of age: Because Upton is entering his age-28 season this year, his "What’s He Really Worth?" projection does not begin with an immediate decline adjustment, as did those for most of the other players we have run through the system this off-season (Jason Heyward being the notable exception). Instead, we can project Upton to retain his projected 2016 value in full in his age-29 season before his decline kicks in in his thirties. As before, that 2016 projection is calculated via a 5/4/3 weighting of his Wins Above Replacement totals (baseball-reference.com version) from the last three years: five times his 4.4 bWAR from his lone Padres season, four times his 3.2 bWAR from '14 and three times his 2.9 bWAR from '13. His decline is simulated by subtracting 0.5 bWAR from the previous year’s projection starting in his age-30 season.
Those yearly bWAR projections are then multiplied by the estimated market price of a marginal win (that is, one Win Above Replacement, or one full point of bWAR) for each season. Those prices stem from Dan Szymborski’s estimate of $6.5 million per marginal win based on actual 2015 salaries, to which we add 5.4% inflation annually. The result looks like this:
That’s $143.4 million over eight years. The only player to get a contract of seven years or more this off-season, however, is Heyward, who is two years younger than Upton and significantly more valuable on a year-to-year basis due to his all-around contributions. The lack of heat on Upton to this late point in the winter suggests that he is unlikely to land such a long-term pact.
The one rumor regarding Upton right now is that the Orioles see him as an alternative to re-signing Chris Davis, whom they offered $154 million over seven years back in early December. That offer, which may still be on the table, would be a significant overpay by my calculations; signing Upton for $140 million over the same term would be a wiser investment. The combination of a slow market for Upton's services and his youth, however, could result in him getting a deal for only five years, allowing him to re-enter the market after his age-32 season.
The numbers project Upton to be worth just shy of $113 million over the next five seasons, which is a price more teams may be willing to pay for his services. To my mind, teams in need of corner outfield help and a middle-of-the-order bat—the Orioles, Angels and, to a lesser degree, the Giants and White Sox—would be foolish not to make him such an offer.