Blue Jays make nice add at low cost with deal for Melvin Upton Jr.
- He's far from his days as a star with the Rays, but Melvin Upton Jr. is a solid addition for a Blue Jays team needing some help in the outfield—and at a good price, too.
When the Padres acquired Melvin Upton Jr. from the Braves in April 2015, it was as financial ballast in a trade headlined by closer Craig Kimbrel. The outfielder's career had fallen apart in Atlanta under the first two seasons of a five-year, $72.25 million deal, even with younger brother Justin playing alongside him. While the Padres' last season and a half has largely been a disappointment, the elder Upton rebranded himself and resurrected his career in San Diego, ultimately attracting the attention of the Blue Jays, who traded for him on Tuesday to fortify their outfield at a relatively low cost.
Via FanRag Sports' Jon Heyman, the Padres are paying all except for $5 million of the roughly $22 million Upton has remaining on his deal, which runs through 2017. In exchange, they'll receive 19-year-old righty Hansel Rodriguez, a 6'2", 170-pound power arm signed out of the Dominican Republic for a $330,000 bonus in February 2014.
The No. 2 pick of the 2002 amateur draft out of a Virginia high school, Upton—who went by the name B.J. until early 2015—spent the first 10 years of his professional career in the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays' organization, debuting in the majors in '04. He didn't solidify a place in the majors until 2007, however, when he converted from the infield to centerfield and hit .300/.386/.508 with 24 homers and 22 steals. While he never quite lived up to showing in five more seasons with the Rays, he averaged 18 homers, 39 steals, a 104 OPS+ and 2.3 WAR from 2008 to '12 as the starting centerfielder for a team that made three postseason appearances on a shoestring budget. During the 2008 playoffs, he helped the Rays to their first AL pennant by hitting a combined seven homers in the Division Series against the White Sox and ALCS against the Red Sox.
Upton signed his deal with the Braves in November 2012, but he began his inaugural season in Atlanta on the disabled list for lower back soreness and soon caused the Braves even more pain. He hit .184/.268/.289 with nine homers, a 54 OPS and -1.6 WAR in 2013, then improved only marginally in '14, batting .208/.287/.333 with 12 homers, a 75 OPS+ and -0.5 WAR. His combined 66 OPS+ for the two years was the lowest of any player with at least 1,000 plate appearances, and along with the similar collapse of Dan Uggla, his failure became a symbol of everything that went wrong during Frank Wren's run as general manager, which ended in September 2014. The Braves immersed themselves in a rebuilding program that purged both Uptons, as well as Kimbrel, Jason Heyward, Evan Gattis, Alex Wood, Andrelton Simmons and many other key figures from their 2013 NL East champions, save for Freddie Freeeman and Julio Teheran.
Upton's Padres debut was delayed until June 8 due to sesamoiditis in his left foot, but upon returning, he flourished as a part-time centerfielder, hitting .259/.327/.429 with five homers, nine steals, a 111 OPS+ and 1.6 WAR in 228 plate appearances. This year, as a regular leftfielder (77 starts) who's dabbled in center (10 starts), he's hit .256/.304/.439 with 16 homers, 20 steals, a 100 OPS+ and 1.9 WAR in 374 PA. In his two seasons in San Diego, he's been particularly potent against lefties (.269/.352/.506 with nine homers in 177 PA) but overexposed against righties (.252/.296/.407 with 12 homers in 425 PA).
As a righty swinger, the 31-year-old Upton isn't an ideal fit with the Blue Jays, who at 56–44 are currently running third in the AL East—three games behind the Orioles—but are 1 1/2 games ahead of the Astros for the second wild-card spot. Aside from the lefty-swinging Michael Saunders and the switch-hitting Justin Smoak, Toronto’s lineup already tilts heavily to the right. Upton's glove work (+10 Defensive Runs Saved in San Diego and more or less average over the past five seasons) provides manager John Gibbons with some flexibility. The metrics suggest he's a better fielder than either Saunders (-6 DRS in leftfield) or Jose Bautista (-8 DRS in right), both of whom have recent history of lower-body woes; the former missed most of last season due to torn cartilage in his left knee, and the latter just returned from a 30-game absence due to turf toe in his left foot. Upton is also a better hitter than centerfielder Kevin Pillar (83 OPS+ this year, 90 OPS+ career), though his defense isn't nearly so spectacular.
Beyond giving Pillar the occasional breather, Upton's most likely path to playing time would appear to be against lefties at an outfield corner (though he has just one game in right). Saunders or Bautista would then slot in at DH and Edwin Encarnacion would take over first base at the expense of Smoak, who's hit just .248/.307/.438 in 114 PA against lefties over the past two seasons. Looking ahead to 2017, Upton will remain an affordable bench piece regardless of whether the Jays retain pending free agents Bautista and/or Encarnacion.
In exchange for Upton and cash, the rebuilding Padres get another live arm to go with Anderson Espinoza, a far more advanced prospect whom they acquired in exchange for Drew Pomeranz on July 14. Rodriguez, who has pitched sparingly in three professional seasons with the Toronto’s rookie and short-season affiliates in the Gulf Coast and Appalachian Leagues, came into the season ranked 18th among the Jays’ prospects in the Baseball America Prospect Handbook 2016. According to the Handbook, he's added 20–25 pounds to his projectable frame since signing, helping to push the top speed of his fastball from 95 mph to 98. At this stage, his mechanics are inconsistent and both his slider and changeup are below average; via the Handbook, "Rodriguez is more thrower than pitcher at this point, but his arm strength is undeniable." As BA’s J.J. Cooper described him via Twitter on Tuesday, “Big arm, long, long, long way from big leagues.”
For the Padres, who are now in the midst of a full-scale rebuilding program after general manager A.J. Preller’s rapid-fire makeover in the winter of 2014–15 didn’t pan out, Rodriguez is a prospect to dream on. For the Jays, he’s one to part with to fill a need in their push to return to the playoffs, and at a very low cost.