The last day of August has brought the biggest move of the month. With the waiver trade deadline just hours away, the Angels acquired All-Star leftfielder Justin Upton from the Tigers for minor league pitcher Grayson Long and a player to be named later, according to both teams (and first reported by MLB Network’s Ken Rosenthal). Amid one of the best seasons of his 11-year career, the 30-year-old Upton represents a major push on the part of Los Angeles to claim a wild-card spot and its first trip to the postseason since 2014.
Upton has quietly mashed this season in the middle of Detroit’s sagging lineup, leading the team in home runs (28), RBIs (94), on-base percentage (.362), slugging percentage (.542) and OPS+ (136). His team-best 5.0 WAR, meanwhile, is more than double that of second-place Jose Iglesias (though the fact that Iglesias is No. 2 on the Tigers in that stat says a lot about how poorly their season has gone). Offensively, it’s been Upton’s best showing since his final season in Atlanta in 2014, and overall, it’s the most value he’s produced since his second All-Star campaign in Arizona back in ’11.
Despite Upton’s strong year, it’s been a dismal one in Detroit, owing to an aging lineup that can’t hit and a rotation that has no depth beyond Michael Fulmer and Justin Verlander. The Tigers already waved the white flag on the season back in July, dealing away rightfielder J.D. Martinez (to the Diamondbacks) and closer Justin Wilson (to the Cubs), but were seemingly content to stop there, holding onto Verlander, Upton and others. It’s likely that money played a big role in that: Signed to a six-year, $132 million deal back in 2016, Upton still has $88.5 million left on that contract, limiting his market.
The Angels, however, were willing to take the plunge because of the gigantic boost he provides to the middle of the lineup. Aside from the god-made-flesh that is Mike Trout and Gold Glover-turned-Silver Slugger Andrelton Simmons, Los Angeles’ lineup is littered with holes. Albert Pujols can still run into a fastball, but the 37-year-old is a shadow of his former self, with a meager 78 OPS+ on the year. First baseman C.J. Cron, meanwhile, offers a league-average bat and not much else.
Upton will also be a significant upgrade in leftfield, long a problem spot for Los Angeles. Angels leftfielders—mainly Cameron Maybin (was claimed by Houston off waivers after Upton was acquired) and Ben Revere—have posted a pathetic .656 OPS on the season, the second-worst mark at the position in all of baseball. The six players who have taken a turn in left for Los Angeles this year have combined for only seven home runs. And this is nothing new for the Angels, who have thrown all sorts of flotsam and jetsam into left, only to watch it predictably fail. Since the team dumped Josh Hamilton after the 2014 season, the Angels have cycled through 22 different players in left and gotten a combined .220/.286/.323 line in that time. Over that same span, Upton has hit .261/.336/.486.
To run out that level of failure is bad enough; to do it alongside Trout is borderline criminal. Kudos, then, to the Angels for finally deciding that enough is enough and swallowing most of the money still owed to Upton—no easy call for a franchise that, in recent years, has been deathly averse to spending big. What probably helped make that decision easier is that Upton has an opt-out he can trigger after the season, which offers a sizable financial release valve. He’s likely to use it, too: Despite having turned 30 a week ago, he would hit a free-agent market that will be short on impact bats. The odds are good that he’ll be able to top his current $22 million a year salary, even taking into account his mediocre defense.
Will this move be too late to save Los Angeles, though? The Astros blocked the Angels’ path to the AL West crown long ago. Despite Houston’s second-half slump, the Halos remain 11 games out with just a month to go. Things are far brighter in the wild-card race, where L.A. trails the Twins by only one game for the second spot and the Yankees by two games for the overall lead. But the Angels have the red-hot Orioles on their trail, only a half game ahead of them in the standings, and four other teams are in the hunt as well. And Upton won’t fix the Angels’ patchwork rotation or shaky bullpen.
Then again, it’s not as if the Angels are the only team riddled with holes yet still alive in the playoff chase. The Twins are leading the way for the second spot despite a rotation comprised of no-names and an even more anonymous. The Orioles, for all their recent success, are still willingly and repeatedly starting Ubaldo Jimenez and Wade Miley. The Rangers, Mariners, Rays and Royals, meanwhile, all have myriad failings that make them just as shaky a bet. When a team can go 43 straight innings without scoring a run like Kansas City just did yet still remain a viable contender, you know the race isn’t a strong one.
To that end, a single move like Upton could be enough to propel the Angels into the playoffs. When every team is a flawed mess, fixing one major hole makes for a big leg up on the rest of the competition. And Upton is a true game-changer offensively, even if his career has felt like a mild disappointment given his pedigree as a former No. 1 pick. (This will be his fifth team in a decade in the majors—an oddly peripatetic career for a guy drafted first overall.) But Upton has come up short only against the expectations thrown upon him as a once-in-a-generation bat and when compared to the other stars who went behind him in the first round in 2005—Ryan Braun, Andrew McCutchen, Troy Tulowitzki.
Besides, those expectations won’t matter one lick in Orange County. All Upton has to do is take some of the weight off Trout’s (very large) shoulders and help Los Angeles get to the one-game play-in, where anything goes, and he’ll be regarded as a success. And who knows: Even the weakest wild card can pull off a postseason hot streak. Just ask Trout, whose 2014 Angels won 98 games but were swept out of the playoffs by that year’s wild-card game winners, the Royals, who made it all the way to Game 7 of the World Series before bowing out.
In the end, Upton may not be enough to get the Angels back to October. But they gave up little to get him—Long has intriguing stuff but profiles as a back-of-the-rotation starter—and couldn’t afford to waste yet another MVP-caliber year from Trout. File this as a move the Angels should have made months (if not years) ago, but one that they at least made while they still had time to do so. Besides, anything that ups the chances of Trout getting into the playoffs is worthy of praise.