Angels Smartly Lock Up Justin Upton to Kick Off MLB Offseason

The champagne has barely dried in the visitors’ clubhouse at Dodger Stadium, but the hot stove has already been fired up. On Thursday afternoon, the Angels announced that they have signed leftfielder Justin Upton to a five-year, $106 million deal, locking up the late August acquisition through his age-35 season. Upton was widely expected to exercise an opt-out in his contract to test the free-agent market; instead, he’ll stay in Los Angeles to help preserve a dangerous middle of the order alongside Mike Trout in a needed move for the Angels.

Rescued from the sinking ship that was the Tigers on the final day of the waiver trade deadline last season, Upton was a force for the Angels down the stretch, hitting .245/.357/.531 with seven homers in 115 plate appearances over 27 games. That was roughly even in terms of overall performance with his time in Detroit, where he hit .279/.362/.542 amid one of the best offensive seasons of his 11-year career. It wasn’t enough, though, to help the Angels catch the Twins for the second wild card, as Los Angeles fell apart late, going 11–17 from Sept. 1 onward.

Despite not being able to carry the Angels into the playoffs, Upton had cost nothing in terms of acquisition—Los Angeles sent two lesser prospects to Detroit for his services. The trick was going to be keeping him in the fold. Upton signed a six-year, $132 million deal with Detroit back in January of 2016, but that contract contained an opt-out clause following the 2017 season; Upton could either stay put and earn $88.5 million over the next four years, or try his luck as a free agent. Given the weak state of the market—where Upton was easily set to be one of, if not the best, outfielder available for mere money—it was almost a guarantee that he would choose the latter.

To keep him around, the Angels had to make it worth his while, and that they did by essentially tacking an additional year onto his deal at $17.5 million. It’s a good move for both player and team. For Upton, he’s now secure through his age-35 season and won’t have to worry about the market turning cold for him—a real possibility, given that most teams are likely saving their pennies for the free-agent bonanza of 2018. Few if any front offices were going to feel good about throwing $100 million or more at an outfielder now past 30, even one who’s as good offensively as Upton. And while there did exist some squads that needed a power boost, this does feel like Upton got the deal he would have received anyway on the open market, given the cold reception that last year’s available sluggers got. (It’s also an early Christmas gift for J.D. Martinez, who is now far and away the best hitter available this winter and whose new agent Scott Boras is likely already fielding calls from frantic general managers.)

As for Los Angeles, retaining Upton was priority number one this winter. A team with Trout will never truly suffer offensively, but the Angels needed to give him more. Albert Pujols’s 2017 is perhaps the greatest proof yet of how misleading RBIs are, as he drove in 101 runs but posted an awful .286 on-base percentage and 81 OPS+; his -1.8 WAR was dead last among every player in baseball. Andrelton Simmons proved he’s more than just a generationally great glove, breaking out to a .278/.331/.421 line and 14 home runs, but help aside from him was hard to find. That was particularly true of leftfield, where the pre-Upton options of Ben Revere and Cameron Maybin served only to stand in stark, terrifying contrast to Trout’s brilliance in center.

For too long now, the Angels have seemingly been content to ride or die with Trout alone, never giving him the help he needs. Pujols was supposed to be the Clyde to his Bonnie, but his rapid decline ended those hopes while also tying the team to a contract that looks worse and worse by the day. Complementary players like Simmons and Kole Calhoun are nice to have but not enough, and the Angels otherwise skimped on the margins, hoping that mediocre veterans like Revere, Yunel Escobar and Danny Espinosa could fill in the margins at bargain-basement prices. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t work: Trout and company, only three seasons removed from the AL’s best record and a division title, haven’t made the playoffs since 2014.

A lot of that can be blamed on the erosion of the Angels’ pitching staff and bullpen, both of which desperately need attention this offseason and better health next year. But stuck in a division with the Astros, who just won the World Series and whose terrific young roster is poised to rule the AL West for the next five years at least, the Angels couldn’t afford to waste any more of Trout’s career by digging through free agency’s discount bins. Nor does Los Angeles have the kind of farm system ready to graduate cheap talent to the majors: The Angels placed only one prospect in Baseball America’s midseason top 100 back in July in the form of outfielder Jordon Adell, and he barely made the cut at No. 97. Spending big is the only solution.

The sell to owner Arte Moreno was likely made easier by the fact that, while the Astros will block the path to an AL West crown, the wild card is wide open. Yes, Los Angeles will have to contend with whichever of the Yankees or Red Sox don’t win the East, and the Twins, Rays and Rangers should be competitive. But the rest of the league is ripe for the taking, with the Blue Jays, Orioles, Mariners and Royals all looking like they’re going to regress or fade away, and the rest of the league amid painful rebuilds. The time is right to go for it.

It also helps that Upton is a relative bargain. Using a quick and dirty version of the Marcel projection system, Upton’s predicted WAR for next season is 4.1 (a 5/4/3 weighing of his last three seasons’ WAR totals) and 15.5 over the length of the contract. That’s well worth a $100 million outlay. And despite Pujols’s contract sucking up a giant percentage of Los Angeles’s payroll, it should be an easily affordable figure in an era of baseball in which revenues continue to climb across the board. (Upton’s deal is also heavily backloaded, allowing extra flexibility this offseason if needed.)

Upton has his flaws. His defense is mediocre at best. Despite being just 30, he already has nearly 1,500 games on his odometer (though he’s been remarkably durable, averaging 145 games per year since his rookie season). He’s prone to brutal, extended slumps—every one of his seasons has at least one month with an OPS under .700—and his swing-and-miss tendencies are pronounced, even for this strikeout-happy era. For a player who already struggles to make contact, the aging process as he slides into his 30s may not be a kind one.

But regardless of those issues and the cost, signing Upton is a move the Angels had to make to stay competitive. It was either that, or announce, at this early juncture, that next year in Orange County would be more of the same—or perhaps start to tear it all down, as Upton’s old team did. There’s still work to be done for general manager Billy Eppler: His infield is weak; his rotation needs reinforcements; his bullpen is a mess. But Upton is a good first step, and one that will help make the Angels a popular dark horse playoff pick in next spring’s predictions. As Los Angeles just showed, it’s never too early to get going on the new season.

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