What to Do With Justin Upton?

Justin Upton is still only 29.

It can be easy to forget about a guy who hasn’t come close to a peak that was over five years ago, but few can maintain the level of excellence that was Justin Upton’s 2011 season.  The hype built from a year like that is huge. The 2005 No. 1 overall pick posting a six-win season at 23 with 31 HR and 21 steals. It’s pretty exciting.

Guys who have enough power to do this are generally pretty talented.

Flash forward to 2016.

Fresh off signing a six-year, $132-million contract, Upton posted a 77 wRC+ along with a .235/.289/.381 slash line in the first half of the season. He struck out in nearly a third of his plate appearances and held a walk rate below his career average.

Most importantly, though, when the Tigers paid Upton big money, they paid him to hit dingers and knock the ball around the yard for extra bases. So someone like him hitting nine homers with a .146 ISO over 350 plate appearances is worrisome.

Yet at the end of the season, Upton ended up with an overall wRC+ of 105, and an ISO of .219.

For qualifying batters, Upton held the crown for the highest second-half ISO increase (.172) while having the fourth-highest ISO of the second half (.318). Meanwhile, he held a second-half wRC+ of 142.

Now, I do understand that he had 86 fewer plate appearances in the second half (356 vs. 270), so it is reasonable to take the ISO and wRC+ increases with a grain of salt. But Upton slugged 22 homers in 270 trips, good for the fourth-most in the second half, behind walking flame Brian Dozier, Khris “I hit dingers through the marine layer” Davis, and Jedd Gyorko (??!!??!).

I don’t know if people expect Upton to start breaking down or expected him to start breaking down but he still continues to crush the ball. For what it’s worth, on average he hits the ball as hard as Paul Goldschmidt (92.3 MPH) and barrels up balls at the same rate as Kris Bryant (7.7% Brls/PA) for an expected ISO of .235 (thanks to Billy Stampfl’s eISO equation). Just for fun, he set his max exit velocity at 114 MPH on his last homer of the year.

Upton is projected by Steamer for a .346 wOBA and 116 wRC+ this season, good for a 2.1 WAR. Given his ability to crush baseballs and his age, I still think Upton has a good chance of surpassing his projections. He’s showed that he has big power, but his first half is weighing his projections down.

The Tigers’ plans going forward are banking on whether or not they can put themselves in a playoff position during the first half before they think about any sort of fire sale. They’re projected to be in the thick of the wild-card race, so they may run a repeat of 2016 and push through to see how close they come. But they can’t continue this way to pay an old core through the next three to four years. In cases like Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, they don’t have much choice but to eat those contracts until they run up.

If things don’t go as planned, the first thing they can do is to ship off J.D. Martinez as a rental and start to rebuild a mostly barren farm system. Martinez is due to become a free agent at the end of the year and there is little chance that the Tigers will offer him the lucrative contract extension that he most likely wants. Ian Kinsler could go next to whomever may need a second baseman and is willing to accept his age. If they really wanted, the Tigers could also see if they could send off Justin Verlander (given that they eat a sizable chunk of his contract).

But the best move for the Tigers could come in the form of trading a resurgent Justin Upton, who can prove that his second-half numbers were no fluke and that the 29-year-old can maintain solid power, as he has throughout his career. It’s tough to find a home for Upton, but the Yankees might be the ones willing to take on his contract, as they’ll be done with CC Sabathia’s monster contract at the end of this year, and Brett Gardner’s contract in 2018. A team like the Yankees might prefer to take Upton and his $22-million AAV rather than test the market for sluggers like J.D. Martinez (also 29) and have to possibly pay more. The Yankees might be willing to take on some of the money and go with a safer outfield bet in Upton rather than having to wait for Aaron Judge or Clint Frazier to become steady contributors. This Yankees team looks like they’re trying to win now, given that they just signed Matt Holliday and Aroldis Chapman, so they might be willing to part with a few prospects at the deadline.

Left field is a weak position right now, and a contender could be looking for a power bat to provide 2-3 wins a year. Should Justin Upton carry his second-half resurgence into 2017, his bat could be too good to pass up, and the Tigers could move his contract and get something going towards a rebuild.

Owen is a contributor at FanGraphs. He got his start blogging about baseball when he was in college and you can find him maybe talking about something on Twitter @O_dotco.

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Barney Coolio
5 years ago

If he can average 25.4 homers and 153 hits for the next 11 seasons, age 29-39, Upton can retire at age 40 he can retire with 500 homers and 3000 hits.

This is unlikely, but interesting to think about.