This week, general manager Al Avila made comments that hinted the Detroit Tigers were looking to make trades that will help them get leaner, faster, and most importantly, cheaper for the 2017 season. Now, it looks like he tried to start the sell-off earlier than anticipated. According to a report from ESPN’s Buster Olney, the Tigers were shopping outfielder Justin Upton to other teams earlier this summer. After signing him to a six-year, $132.75 million deal in January, it looks like the Tigers are already ready to move on from him, and were prepared to do so mid-season.
Despite a torrid September, Upton had a trying year, to say the least. In what was arguably the worst full season of his major league career, he was barely above league average with 105 wRC+, and was below average in left field with -6 UZR. Through the first half of the season, Upton couldn’t hit a beach ball. Before the All Star break, he only managed to post a 77 wRC+ to go with a batting line of .235/.289/.381.
However, in the second half of the season, and particularly in September, Upton looked worth every penny of his gargantuan contract. Throughout the entire second half, he managed a 142 wRC+, the 11th highest among qualified AL hitters. However, between September and October, he posted a scorching 196 wRC+, walked in nearly 12 percent of his plate appearances, hit 13 home runs, and put up an other-worldly .458 isolated power (ISO).
If it’s true that the Tigers attempted to trade Upton during the season, it would’ve had to have been before the non-waiver trade deadline at the end of July, or before rosters expanded in September, assuming they were pushing him on playoff contenders. If that were the case, it would have been before Upton went on his year-end tear, and his trade value really couldn’t have been lower. After Avila’s ominous comments earlier in the week, it makes sense that they are already willing to move on from Upton to scale their payroll back. Shopping him in the midst of the worst stretch of his career might signal just how far they are willing to go to move him.
After setting the league on fire during the final month of the season, Upton’s trade value is somewhat higher, but he’s still handicapped by the five years and nearly $111 million remaining on his contract. If there’s one redeeming factor, it’s that he has an opt-out clause at the end of 2017. If he continues to produce like he did in the second half of last season, there’s a chance Upton will gamble on himself and try for a larger contract in free agency. Besides, Upton will only be 30 years old at next season’s end, and the ever-exploding market could dictate a higher contract value for his services.
There are a few downsides with trying to trade Upton. Included in his massive contract is a no-trade clause to 20 teams. When negotiating with other clubs, Upton will have to okay a move to two-thirds of them, and if the Jonathan Lucroy saga in July taught us anything, it’s that players have no-trade clauses for a reason.
Additionally, any team that is willing to move for Upton will want the Tigers to take on a considerable chunk of salary. Depending on how much salary the Tigers have to eat, the return may not be worth it. Also, signing a player in January 2016 and then trading him before the 2017 season is a bad look for any team. While it’s apparent the Tigers won’t be players for any big free agents anytime soon, moving a player after one year could sour their reputation with free agents in the future.