Justin Upton Should Be Orioles’ New Primary Target

As we enter the final day of the 2015 MLB Winter Meetings, the Baltimore Orioles, to this point of the offseason, have been as passively and aggressively active as any organization.

With Matt Wieters and Darren O’Day secured for 2016 and beyond and newbie Mark Trumbo having been acquired for Steve Clevenger, the O’s have already made a significant mark on what is still a blossoming period of activity. Dan Duquette continues to be at the forefront of seemingly every rumor regarding corner outfielders, starting pitching, and Chris Davis, a welcoming sight for a fanbase thirsty for a major splash.

The Orioles are striving to make the ultimate push for incumbent first baseman Chris Davis, who leads all of baseball with 159 home runs since the start of 2012. However, yesterday’s reports detail Davis has rebuffed Baltimore’s uncharacteristic seven-year, $150 million mega-offer, instead searching for a deal in the eight-year, $200 million range.

Davis has exemplified the Orioles’ new brand of winning baseball, and along the way, has become entrenched as a fan-favorite for his quirky Texan personality and ability to crush baseballs. However, the Orioles have rightfully placed an unofficial deadline on Davis and agent Scott Boras. The positional dominos are beginning to fall, while the Orioles, a club in sure need of a few everyday reinforcements, can’t allow Davis to dictate the remaining pattern of the offseason. If Davis and Boras believe the hulking lefty is worth $25 million per year through his age 37 season, he is likely to find a suitor with the resources to match. That isn’t the Orioles, however.

Duquette, as well as traditionally penny-pinching owner Peter Angelos, have been adamant that they wants Davis back, but the situation is slowly taking a turn away from a reunion. Luckily for the Orioles, the positional depth on the free-agent and trade markets provide realistic opportunities for the O’s to acquire a lefty impact bat. Carlos Gonzalez, Pedro Alvarez and Mitch Moreland have all been connected to Baltimore, but it’s hard to imagine the Orioles making any forcible advancements on the three. Alvarez is the most likely name for the Orioles to sign at first base. The Orioles just don’t seem to have the resources to make a trade for Gonzalez or Moreland.

Gonzalez, a natural baseball talent with two years of relatively sensible control, would require the Orioles to part ways with Colorado native Kevin Gausman, and there shouldn’t be any circumstance in which the O’s deal away their most promising young pitcher. As for Alvarez and Moreland, the interest seems to be more casual than promising.

If the Orioles are going to find themselves orchestrating one major introductory press conference, it should be in celebration of free-agent outfielder Justin Upton.

Upton has been labeled as the Orioles’ primary fall-back option should Davis opt for deeper pockets, and it seems the latter is closer to fruition. Though not the left-handed bat the O’s would like to plug into a heavily right-handed lineup, Upton makes the most sense for an organization with space for yet more star-power. Towards the trade deadline, the O’s were highly speculative of Upton, but the Padres’ hopeful compensation, as well as Upton’s timely offensive struggles, resulted in an unexpected standstill. Now a free agent, Upton’s name has somewhat flown under the radar, surprising for a slugger of his caliber.

A career .271/.352/.473 hitter, Upton has also averaged 26 HRs and 84 RBIs per 162 games. He’s a run-producing power hitter that fits the Orioles’ current hitting approach. Since 2009, Upton is one of 33 players to post a collective 22.4 oWAR, and of those players, he’s among 15 others to have at least a .200 ISO in that span. In 2015, Upton actually hit more home runs at spacious Petco Park (15) than he did on the road (11), a testament to his no-doubt-about-it power from the right-handed side.

As the Orioles would seemingly hope to upgrade from baseball’s seventh-worst OBP in 2015, Upton may not be immediately assumed to do such. However, Upton’s most recent 11.0 BB% would have actually finished second among O’s regulars in 2015, behind only Chris Davis (12.5%). Again, since 2009, Upton is one of 10 players to produce at least 170 HRs and walk 440 times, and is by far the youngest of the bunch to do so. He’s a slugger, yes, but his ability to work counts may be his most underrated skill.

In terms of mechanics, Upton’s approach is a coach’s dream. There is no wasted motion, as his hands travel from a stationary position behind his head, while he mixes a slight leg lift that translates into easy power. His natural ability to hit the ball over the fence with limited effort would make him an immediate 30-35 home run threat at Camden Yards.

My favorite Upton moment of the this past season came in late July, as Upton took Mets closer Jeurys Familia deep to cap an improbable Padres comeback. Not only did his three-run blast occur in a downpour, but his power to the opposite field trumped the impressively heavy New York rain.

Having the approach, and ability, to smoke a line drive home run to right-center field, especially at Citi Field, is an overwhelming signal of a special hitter.

The Orioles, specifically manager Buck Showalter, covet defense, and though Upton isn’t a defensive wizard, his 2.1 DRS average in nine seasons doesn’t come as a liability. Having spent time in Arizona, Atlanta and San Diego, Upton’s been forced to patrol tracks of land that he wouldn’t have to in Baltimore.

Orioles fans have every right to wish back Chris Davis. His persona on and off the field have become cemented into Baltimore’s renewed brand of winning, and his knack for dingers is just as desirable. However, Davis and his representatives will do what is in their best interests, and as Boras is unwilling to “draw a line the sand”, the Orioles may have no choice but to watch their prized pearl be towed away by baseball’s riptide.

Even so, Upton is no consolation. With already nine years of experience at 28-years-old, he may never rise to the status of a former No. 1 overall selection, but Upton’s previous production and entrance into the prime years of his career make him less of a risk than most on the free-agent market.

As much as Duquette would like to bring in a left-handed bat to balance the lineup, Upton’s consistent ability to drive in runs should outweigh where he stands in the batter’s box. Alex Gordon continues to be discussed as an option, and he does bring intangibles that fit the Orioles playing philosophies, and more so needs. The thing is, at 31 with a Markakian-like career trajectory, his cost-to-production doesn’t make him quite as enticing as Upton. As well, Upton is a native of Virginia, and having played a majority of his career on the West Coast, maybe there’s a yearning to play closer to home.

MLB Trade Rumors predicted Upton for a seven-year, $147 million deal, a commitment the Orioles would normally find too frugal for safety. However, the early indication this winter has hinted the Baltimore front office is unafraid of taking on a larger payroll. If Duquette is willing to pay Davis nearly $22 million per season while also hoping to bring in a starter such as Scott Kazmir or Yovani Gallardo at an AAV of $15-$18 million, Upton’s potential arrival in Baltimore wouldn’t hinder the same approach. Rather than spending close to $200 million on one body and limiting the overall improvement of a team with more holes than just first base, Upton would come at a relatively securer cost with room to spend elsewhere.

MASNSports.com’s Steve Melewski spoke with Showalter yesterday, asking Baltimore’s manager if the team would forfeit their 14th-overall pick in June’s draft in order to acquire one of the many top-flight free-agents.

 “We talked about something the other day that would require that,” Showalter said. “It would have to be something that really fits. But we would if we had to.

For the Orioles, Upton would be worth it.

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