Just in time: Tigers get great deal, needed bat with Justin Upton
On Monday morning, I evaluated the Tigers’ off-season (as part of our ongoing Winter Report Cards series) and came to the conclusion that the team was in need of “one more outfielder” to help prop up an offense that was tenth in the American League in runs scored per game last season. On Monday night, Detroit landed that outfielder, coming to terms on a six-year, $132.75 million contract with Justin Upton.
Upton fits the bill perfectly. The leftfielder, who hit .251/.336/.454 with 26 home runs last year in San Diego, boasts a big power bat—he has averaged 27 home runs per season over the last three years and a .478 slugging percentage over the last seven. Even better, he is still in his prime: 2016 will be his age-28 season. Upton is also coming off a year in which he showed significant improvement in the field and on the bases. Of course, the Tigers didn’t sign Upton for his fielding, which is typically below average, or his rediscovered ability to swipe roughly 20 bags per season (he stole 19 for the Padres last year, the fifth time he has stolen 18 or more, though his career high is 21). They signed him for his bat, which is a significant addition to the heart of Detroit’s lineup.
With Upton in place, the Tigers can run out Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez and Upton in the Nos. 2–5 spots, pushing 37-year-old Victor Martinez down to sixth. Yes, that’s a lot of righthanders in a row—the only lefties in Detroit's projected lineup are centerfielder Anthony Gose and the elder Martinez, who switch-hits—but being heavily righthanded didn’t hurt the Blue Jays last year. The Tigers can also now run out an all-righty lineup against lefthanded starters, with righty Cameron Maybin now clearly expected to serve as Gose’s platoon partner in center. That will make Detroit a particularly problematic opponent for the division rival White Sox, whom they’ll face 19 times this season and whose rotation is headed by four lefthanders (Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Carlos Rodon and John Danks)—though it’s possible that Chicago will be the Tigers' only intradivision opponent with a lefty in its Opening Day rotation.
As for Upton’s contract: $132.75 million over six years is a slight overpay according to the What’s He Really Worth? calculations I ran earlier this month, which placed his value over the next six seasons at a little more than $127 million. That difference amounts to less than 5% of the total value of the contract, however—a premium that Tigers owner Mike Ilitch was surely happy to pay given the 86-year-old’s perennial win-now edict for his team, which won four straight AL Central titles from 2011 to '14 but last won a World Series in 1984, eight years before he bought the Tigers.
What’s more, the Tigers are unlikely to pay Upton the full $132.75 million over the next six seasons, as his contract contains an opt-out after the second year. Though the deal is not yet official, early reports say that that $132.75 million is distributed evenly over the six-year term, so Upton will earn $44.25 million for the next two seasons and then have what amounts to a four-year, $88.5 million player option after his age-29 season. Assuming he avoids a major injury or a dramatic decline in production, Upton should be able to land a richer contract than that heading in to his age-30 season and is then a near lock to opt-out—or, at the very least, to use the leverage of his opt-out to wring additional years and dollars out of the Tigers.
The Tigers would be wise to let Upton go at that point. Unless he takes a meaningful step forward in the next two years, Upton won’t be worth any more than that $88.5 million in his age-30–33 seasons (my projections put him at $86.8 million for those four years). In 2016 and '17, however, he should be worth more than $50 million, making the potential two-year, $44.25 million reality of this contract—should Upton opt-out—a very nice deal for Detroit.
There was an additional expense here, as Upton, having declined the Padres' qualifying offer, will cost the Tigers a pick in this year's draft. But the team’s first-round pick (No. 9) is protected, and Detroit already lost its second-round pick when it signed Jordan Zimmermann in November. Thus, signing Upton only costs the Tigers a third-round pick, which is a negligible expense.
Having signed Zimmermann and Upton, the Tigers and new general manager Al Avila have now landed two of this winter’s top six free agents, according to SI.com's rankings, and they landed an ace closer as well via a trade for Francisco Rodriguez; if Upton does opt out, they will have gotten all three at below market value. The smaller moves Detroit has made this off-season haven’t been nearly as impressive, but any time a team can land an ace for both its rotation and its bullpen as well as a middle-of-the-order bat all for a discount, it has had a good winter. The question that remains is whether or not the aging Tigers can stay healthy and productive enough capitalize on those three new additions and return to contention in 2016.