A few years ago, the Detroit Tigers were linked in trade talks with outfielder Justin Upton, then a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks. The main rumor never mentioned Upton specifically, but swirled around Tigers starter Rick Porcello heading to either Arizona or Seattle. No one is sure how exactly the Mariners were involved -- Upton had already negated a trade to Seattle earlier that offseason -- but the idea of landing a young outfielder of Upton's caliber was exciting.
Spoiler alert: it didn't happen. Upton was traded to the Atlanta Braves instead, where he put up 7.0 WAR in two seasons before getting traded again last offseason. He spent 2015 in sunny San Diego, where he hit .251/.336/.454 with 26 home runs and 81 RBI in 620 plate appearances.
Now 28, the former No. 1 overall pick hits free agency for the first time, where he appears poised to land a big payday. The Tigers appeared to have some level of interest in him a few years ago, and could use an outfielder with plenty of thump in his bat for 2016 and beyond.
Who is he?
Selected by the Diamondbacks with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 MLB draft, Upton rocketed through the minors. He spent a full season at Single-A in 2006 before jumping three levels in 2007, making his major league debut on August 2 as a 19 year old. His team was in the midst of a stretch run that culminated in an NLCS appearance, but Upton was little help, batting .221/.283/.364 in a handful of plate appearances.
Two years later, Upton made his first All-Star team, hitting .300/.366/.532 with 26 home runs and 20 stolen bases in 138 games. That wasn't quite enough to gain any MVP buzz, but he finished fourth in NL MVP voting in 2011 after hitting .289/.369/.529 with a career-high 31 home runs in 159 games. After a slight downturn in 2012, Upton roared into 2013 on a blistering pace. He hit 12 home runs in April to generate some early MVP talk, which quickly faded when he came back to earth in May. Upton has played in similar fashion over the past three years, alternating stretches of white-hot hitting with maddening cold streaks. The end result? A career .271/.352/.473 hitter who has accumulated 26.5 WAR in just under 1200 career games.
Why should we care?
While he can disappear offensively from time to time, Upton's offensive track record speaks for itself. He hits for a decent average, he hits for power, and he draws walks. Upton has hit 190 career home runs, with 26 or more in four of the past five seasons. He has also posted an ISO above .200 in four of the past five seasons, topping out at .240 with the Diamondbacks in 2011. Upton has also proven to be a solid baserunner, with 30.5 baserunning runs (BsR) in his nine-year career. He stole 77 bases from 2009 to 2012, then perked up to swipe 19 bags in 24 chances with the Padres in 2015.
At 28, Upton is on the younger end of the free agent spectrum. He's not quite as green as the 26-year-old Jason Heyward, but Upton has hit for more power throughout his career. Upton is still in the prime years of his career, and while it's unlikely he gets any better, he is an MVP-caliber talent at his best. To his credit, he has done a phenomenal job of staying on the field, playing at least 149 games in each of the past five seasons. Even a seven-year contract would only carry Upton into his mid-30s, while a shorter deal would extend through the tail end of his early-30s prime.
Why should we stay away?
Like with many of the top starting pitchers on the free agent market, signing Upton to a long-term deal would likely limit the Tigers' flexibility to fix the other holes on their roster. Upton should command a deal worth more than $20 million per season, and if the right teams are involved, that number could potentially push closer to $25 million. Upton is a great player, but is not a franchise-changing talent in the mold of a David Price or Zack Greinke (or potentially Heyward, if he starts hitting for power).
While Upton is no Delmon Young in left field, he's not a premium defensive talent either. He has been worth +19 defensive runs saved (DRS) in his career, but 16 of those runs have come in two great seasons, while the rest have been around league average. This speaks partially to the volatility of defensive metrics, but also to the volatility of a player like Upton. His revised zone rating (RZR), a metric that assesses how a fielder fares on plays within their "zone," has been below .900 in each of the past three seasons. The league average for outfielders from 2013 to 2015 is roughly .905. Upton's ultimate zone rating (UZR) has fluctuated wildly, resulting in a career UZR of 0.5.
Will he end up in Detroit?
Upton seems like he would finish a distant third on the Tigers' outfielder wish list, but there's still plenty to like about his skill set. Power is still a relatively scarce resource in today's MLB, and adding Upton to a lineup already featuring Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez, and a hopefully rejuvenated Victor Martinez should make the Tigers one of baseball's best offensive teams in 2016. With limited payroll space to work with, however, it may not be that likely.