As winter approaches the Major League Baseball free agent class is beginning to take shape. Nobody in the entire class may have as much potential as outfielder Justin Upton. The former #1 overall pick in the 2005 draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks has had a very successful career and is still only 28 years old. He will capitalize on his raw abilities during the free agency period. Expect a bidding war for his services.
The man can flat out rake, but he does have some issues that potential teams should be quite aware of. Upton has a career batting line of .271/.352/.473 with 190 home runs and 616 RBIs to go along with 115 stolen bases. Very respectable numbers, but are they elite numbers? Upton has had some very productive years, but has still not put it all together offensively. At this point you really have to wonder if he ever will (haven’t we always said the same thing about his brother). Don’t get me wrong Upton is an All-Star caliber player. He has shown the ability to hit anywhere as he smashed 15 of his 26 home runs this past season in the spacious confines of Petco Park.
Still, Upton has yet to fully reach his potential. He has only once hit over .300 (2009) in the Major Leagues. He has also only once driven in 100 runs (2014) and hit 30 home runs (2011). I realize those are just numbers, but it is strange that he hasn’t been able to reach those milestones consistently.
The three-time National League All-Star is going to get paid this offseason. The San Diego Padres really have no chance of retaining him with the contracts of James Shields, Matt Kemp and Melvin Upton Jr. on their books. They will make him a qualifying offer, and then just scoop up a draft pick for his departure. The Padres need to re-work their farm system and although their payroll has increased, they are currently at or around their budget. To make a run at Upton the team would have to get really creative with its payroll.
Upton will probably get a deal in the $120-150 million dollar range in total. Is he worth that investment? His lack of elite consistency is noted, but there are other factors against signing him long-term. In this day of power hitters, Upton sure does swing and miss a lot. He has never struck out fewer than 121 times a season in his Major League career. He had 159 last year alone. He has struck out 1,185 times in 4,329 at bats. That’s a strike out every 3.6 at bats. Not exactly what you want from a middle of the order hitter. To put that into perspective Hank Aaron struck out 1,383 times in his career. Of course that was in 12,364 at-bats. In this day and age it’s really a shame sluggers don’t shorten up with two strikes and put the ball in play, but I’ll get off my soapbox. Strikeouts are accepted in today’s game.
There are plenty of hitters that strike out a lot, but watching Upton play last season, it was clear that he just gave away at bats from time-to-time. Witness him taking fastballs right down the middle for strike three on numerous occasions. Obviously his approach needs work as he has the ability to be one of the most feared hitters in the league. Upton looks as though he guesses up at the plate way too much. His pitch recognition skills may need work.
Defensively, Justin Upton is average at best. His defensive ratings were not horrible this past season, but he did struggle to track the ball successfully on several occasions. He also fails to get in the proper position to throw consistently to bases. Upton has a -3.6 defensive rating in total for his career, and has only finished in the positive in that category twice (2011 and 2015) in his nine-year Major League career. Upton committed only three errors in left field for the Padres this past season, which that earned him a nomination for a Gold Glove. In reality he is not a Gold Glove caliber defender. Don’t buy into the hype.
When evaluating a potential free agent who is about to make 100-plus million dollars you have to be very critical. In reality Upton is an excellent ball player. He has the potential to be a late bloomer at the elite level, and could very well take his game into a new level. The 28-year-old slugger has plenty of experience and would be an excellent addition to many Major League teams. He does come with some risk factors as well so beware.
The large market teams are going to be all over him. The Baltimore Orioles, New York Mets, New York Yankees and Los Angeles Angels will all be interested to a certain degree. Others could emerge as the slugging outfielder has great deal of talent. Upton will be valued very highly by several teams and this is a situation definitely worth monitoring.