It was a tumultuous season for the Tigers, but in the first offseason of the Avila era, the Tigers have checked every box on their winter to-do list. They signed Zimmermann and Pelfrey, acquired Rodriguez, Lowe, and Wilson, and added Saltalamacchia and Aviles. Now Justin Upton. If you go back and read our offseason plan, it called for two starters, three relievers, a premier outfielder, and some bench stuff. While they went a little light on the bench and could have been more imaginative with the second starting pitcher, the Tigers have done everything they needed to do. The players they chose aren’t the players I recommended, but they substituted players of equivalent merit.
Granted, a World Series favorite this does not make. The Tigers will still have stiff competition in the Central and the juggernauts of the National League, but the Tigers now have a team within striking distance of the title that has eluded them for 32 years.
Upton will be a Tiger for 6 years at the price of $132.75M million, with an opt-out after 2017. The deal makes plenty of sense for the Tigers because not only did they need an outfielder, they needed these extra wins to push them from being an okay team to a good one. In more sophisticated parlance, the Tigers are at a place on the win curve where every win they add to their 2016 total increases their odds of October baseball significantly. And the Tigers have already decided that they’re not rebuilding, so it makes all the sense in the world to go for broke this year. Verlander, Cabrera, Sanchez, and Kinsler won’t be impact players that much longer.
The Tigers also added an outfielder without trading away any of their young starting pitchers, which might serve to soften the blow of 2019 and 2020. Norris, Boyd, Fulmer, and Burrows all remain in the fold and ready to contribute in the future. Signing Upton will also cost the club a 3rd round draft choice.
So all told, the Tigers will spend $132 million, plus the million or two in value they will lose with the draft pick, plus some amount of value lost by offering the opt out. Maybe that makes the deal worth $140 million. Maybe it’s $150 million. It doesn’t really matter. Justin Upton has averaged just north of 3 WAR per 600 plate appearances in his career, including his shaky 2007-2008 debut seasons. If you wipe those out, you’re talking about an average of 3.5 WAR with definite upside potential.
He’s been a consistent, above average corner outfielder with star potential. If he continues on that path, the Tigers will probably wind up getting $110-120 million of context neutral value out of this deal. And that’s if he doesn’t have any star level seasons and stays around for the length of the deal. That doesn’t factor in the fact that the Tigers should be heavily discounting future costs given the nature of their roster. Upton makes them significantly better in 2016 and 2017 and the long term downside is relatively minimal.
Any player can suffer a total collapse, but there is no reason to think Upton is more likely than anyone to suffer such a fate. Outside of that, the downside is that Upton is an average player and is worth $80-90 million over the life of the deal. If everything goes right, he’ll help them make the playoffs and will decide to opt out. Maybe he ages poorly and the Tigers regret this, but the size of the downside relative to the potential upside makes this a pretty smart move for the team.
The Tigers need Upton for the next couple of seasons and the risk they absorbed for that benefit is not unreasonable. He gets on base and hits for power, he plays a solid corner, and still runs the bases quite well. He’s a very good player and he’s still only 28.
The worst thing you can say about this deal is that might be for slightly more money that Upton is likely to be worth over the next six seasons. But the Tigers are absolutely a team that should prioritize short term returns and that wipes away any concerns you should have about the potential cost down the line. Signing free agents is not a good way to spend efficiently, but you can’t find and develop a 20 year old star overnight.
The Tigers took 600 PA from a combination of Gose, Maybin, and Collins and gave them to Upton. That’s a 2 WAR upgrade on the low end, but might be closer to 3 WAR. Given where this team is at this moment in time, that’s absolutely an upgrade worth paying for, even if it ends up being a little pricier than fair market value when all is said and done after 2021. I mean, honestly, think of how far away that is? Mike Ilitch might not be alive. I will probably have children and a house. As I’m fond of saying, an old, expensive roster in 2020 is Future Neil’s problem.
I’ll have more to say about Upton as a player as we get out of the offseason and into preseason mode, but for now I’ll say this. The Tigers needed to fill a lot of holes this winter. They needed starting pitching, relief help, a good outfielder, and some bench pieces. They got it all. Is Justin Upton the outfielder I wanted most? No. Was K-Rod my ideal relief ace? No. But the Tigers got the pieces they needed even if they weren’t the exact pieces I had in mind.
Reasonable people will disagree over which corner outfielder made the most sense and which back end starter was most likely to have a good 2016, but everyone should have been able to see what the Tigers needed to acquire in order to matter in 2016. They had a long shopping list.
Al Avila had me worried when he decided to retain Ausmus, but Avila and his lieutenants have done a great job assembling the 2016 Tigers. There are no guarantees in baseball, but with the roster they inherited and the money they had to spend, this was roughly the best for which we could have hoped.