Late Monday night, news broke that Justin Upton had finally signed a contract. After a prolonged free agency, Upton officially agreed to a six-year, $132.75 million contract with the Detroit Tigers. Despite the Tigers reportedly being done with offseason spending following several notable additions, including RHP Jordan Zimmermann, the team pulled the trigger on Upton anyway. The deal will come with an opt-out clause after the second year of the deal, following the 2017 season. On top of that, Upton also will reportedly receive at least a partial no-trade clause, although the specifics of that portion of the deal have yet to be released, with no deferred money as was the case for Chris Davis.
On the surface, this deal appears to make a lot of sense for both sides. While the Tigers were supposed to be done with their offseason spending according to multiple reports, the team could not pass up the opportunity to further upgrade their offense in both the short and long term. For Upton, he got the long-term deal he has been hoping for, and was not forced to take the one- or two-year deal that some had been discussing in recent weeks. On paper, the Tigers take a huge step forward offensively.
Prior to the trade, the Detroit Tigers were projected for an 82-80 finish according to the Fangraphs projections, finishing exactly two games behind the Cleveland Indians. With such a close margin between the two teams, adding a player like Upton holds an added benefit for a team like the Tigers. Before Upton was signed, the Tigers outfield was expected to be some combination of Anthony Gose, Cameron Maybin and J.D. Martinez. Now the Tigers will have Upton and Martinez at the corners with a likely platoon of Maybin/Gose in center field, with one potentially being regulated to a more traditional fourth outfielder role. Considering Upton is projected for around 3.0 WAR according to Steamer, and Gose is projected for less than 1.0 WAR, the Tigers look to have made up the projected ground in the AL Central.
Offensively the Tigers have built quite a formidable middle of the lineup. Upton joins a lineup that already includes Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez, Victor Martinez and others, making up one of the most powerful lineups in the American League. The Tigers will rely heavily on all their veterans staying healthy, but if all these guys stay healthy the Tigers will have a fantastic lineup in 2016. Upton essentially replaces the lost bat of Yoenis Cespedes.
One important consideration for the Tigers here is that Upton was offered a qualifying offer by the Padres, and thus will cost the Tigers a draft pick. Because the Tigers first round pick is protected (9th overall), and their second round pick has already been given up because Jordan Zimmermann was signed, the Tigers will give up their third round pick, projected to be in the mid-80s in next year’s draft. This leaves the Tigers with only one draft pick in the first 100 picks, putting an added strain on an already thin farm system. Some depth was acquired at the trade deadline last season, but the system still ranks in the bottom half of the league.
The final important consideration in this signing beyond the on-field product and the draft pick loss is the monetary concern. For a team already saddled with several large, long-term contracts, this new contract puts an added strain on an already strained monetary situation. With the Upton signing, it appears very likely that the team will exceed the luxury tax threshold for next season, barring any further trades or payroll cutting. Add to the new Upton contract the contracts of Miguel Cabrera ($218 million through 2023), Justin Verlander ($112 million through 2019), Jordan Zimmermann ($110 million through 2020), Victor Martinez ($54 million through 2018), and Ian Kinsler ($25 million through 2017), and the Tigers have a lot of money tied up long term in players with some significant risk. Upton just adds further risk to a team that is already filled with substantial risk all around the diamond.
However, the opt-out after the 2017 season for Upton could become significant. While the Tigers obviously don’t want to lose a player they gave a long-term commitment, seeing Upton opting out after his second season in Detroit may not be a bad thing overall. This would save the Tigers almost $90 million on the last four years of the deal and would put the team in at least a slightly better financial situation. This would depend on how Upton performs in the next two years. If he does poorly in Detroit it is unlikely he will opt-out, even if will be only 30 years old when that opt-out comes.
At the end of the day, this deal is a good one for Detroit. The Tigers, through owner Mike Ilitch and new general manager Al Avila, have made it pretty clear that they are in win-now mode. With an aging roster and lots of long-term monetary commitments, it is clear that the Tigers’ window for contention is rapidly closing. In a weak American League Central, and really a weak American League in general, the Tigers have positioned themselves as a formidable team for next season. Justin Upton should provide yet another strong middle of the lineup bat for the Tigers in 2016, and could help lead the city of Detroit back to the playoffs after a brief one year postseason hiatus.