When the Detroit Tigers signed Justin Upton to a six-year, $132.75 million contract in January 2016, his opt-out clause quickly became a hot-button topic. The clause, which can be exercised after this season, gives him the option to opt out of the final four years of his deal and become a free agent.
Upton “has no plan to opt out” right now, according to Bob Nightengale of USA Today. However, that tells us little about Upton’s actual plans when the offseason hits. The soon-to-be 30-year-old outfielder is enjoying a resurgent season for the Tigers on both sides of the ball. He is hitting .283/.367/.542 with 25 home runs and 88 RBI, and was the lone Tigers player to appear in this year’s All-Star Game. He has been worth +8 defensive runs saved (DRS) in left field, and is on pace to reach 5.0 fWAR for the second time in his career.
If Upton opts out, he would be walking away from $88.5 million in guaranteed salary over the next four years. Normally, a 30-year-old outfielder with his talent and production would make a lot more than that on the open market, but some teams have shied away from giving out big-money deals in recent winters. Given Upton’s reliance on power and limited defensive utility, his new deal may not be worth quite as much money.
However, opting out gives Upton the chance to choose his destination. The Tigers are headed for a rebuild, and Upton has only been to the postseason three times in his 11-year MLB career (with only one NLCS appearance). If the money is comparable, he may choose to go to a contender in hopes of winning a championship before he retires. Or he may want to play elsewhere in the country, or return to a club that he played for before. No matter the motivation, there may be something besides money that pulls him away from Detroit.
Whether this would be a good thing for the Tigers is up for debate. Upton’s contract is a drain on their payroll, though not to the extent of under-performing veterans like Victor Martinez and Jordan Zimmermann. They would certainly miss Upton’s bat in the middle of their lineup, especially if they have eyes on making one last run at a playoff spot next season. The Tigers already have to fill one corner outfield position now that J.D. Martinez is wearing another uniform. Filling two with their internal options — Mikie Mahtook, prospects Christin Stewart and Mike Gerber, and others — would be difficult at best.
Upton may also force Detroit’s hand. If he opts out, the team may choose to be more proactive in selling their veteran contracts next winter, further kickstarting their rebuild. If he stays, the team may try to shore up a hole or two and make one last run at the postseason.
Either way, he won’t be telling us his plans in mid-August.