The Angels Wanted Justin Upton for Right Now

Two things are simultaneously true about the American League wild-card race. One, none of the teams, outside of the Yankees, are particularly good. Even the Yankees have their own flaws, but the rest of the teams in the mix are even weaker. One could argue whether any of them will deserve to be playoff teams at all. Two, there will be playoff teams. There will be, probably, the Yankees and someone else. No matter what you might think about team quality, playoff positions are at stake, and a playoff spot, for any club, holds considerable value. We don’t actually know how the playoffs will ever go. The biggest thing is just making it there. Plenty of AL teams are trying to make it there.

It’s with this year’s playoff race in mind that we’ve got the following trade:

Angels get

Tigers get

The Angels are not a good baseball team, relative to other baseball teams. However, they don’t need to be good — rather, they just need to be good enough. Upton could well make them good enough, and because this trade was made official today, Upton, of course, would be eligible for the playoff roster. Upton’s contract does have another four years, but this trade is very much about today, tomorrow, and the weeks a little after that.

As I write this, the Angels are one game behind the Twins for the second wild-card spot. Also, the Twins just fell behind the White Sox in the later innings of a matinee. Plenty of other teams are hanging around, but the Angels are closest to taking the spot over. We have the Angels projected to finish with 83.something wins. The Twins are also projected to finish with 83.something wins. The margin almost literally couldn’t be smaller, and these are the second-wild-card favorites. You’ve heard before about how teams on the bubble have the most to gain from additions. The Angels are right on that bubble, and it’s kind of reflected in the graph of their season playoff odds:

The Angels are at their highest point in a while, and this is before including the Upton add. It’s true that things can shift abruptly, without any warning. The Twins added, then subtracted, then took over the lead anyway. The Rangers are nearby, even though, right at the deadline, they gave up on Yu Darvish. The Orioles were thinking about selling, and now they’ve won seven in a row. Especially over brief windows, you don’t know what baseball’s going to do. Teams just have to give themselves the best chance. The Angels’ chance improves with Upton.

Related to this move, the Angels lost Cameron Maybin, who was selected by the Astros off waivers. Maybin had been the left fielder. Upton will be the new left fielder. Based on the rest-of-season projections, that’s right around a half-win improvement. That half-win would be enough to make the Angels the new second-wild-card favorites. You don’t usually think of late-August trades as being able to make that much of a difference, but we don’t usually get playoff races like this one. Ideally, I’m sure, the Angels would’ve liked to improve their pitching staff. But any way to get better is a way to get better, and Upton adds some serious thump, in a lineup where Andrelton Simmons has had to do too much heavy lifting.

Basically, Upton gives the Angels’ odds a jolt. He’s a good player, taking over for a mediocre one. Even with Upton, the Angels would still stand as probably the worst playoff team in the American League, but they’d be one of just five teams in the mix, and you can never write anyone off. Getting to the playoffs is important. Lasting in the playoffs is even more important. No one would predict the Angels to win the World Series, but it’s all about keeping the door open.

The cost is appropriate for a short-term add. The player to be named later is reportedly going to come from the lower levels, and that player is unlikely to ever make an impact. Long is something — Baseball America ranked him eighth in the Angels’ system a short while ago. Long’s a 23-year-old righty starter who stands 6’5. He’s got a mid-2s ERA in Double-A, after having missed a chunk of 2016 due to injury. By profile, Long is somewhat uninspiring; he doesn’t throw enough strikes or miss enough bats to stand out. Yet he has a decent chance of seeing the major leagues, so it’s not like the Tigers gave Upton away.

What complicates the Upton conversation is the existence of his opt-out clause. He’s under contract another four years, for $88.5 million. But Upton can also opt out of that in a few months. Recently, there were reports that Upton was leaning toward opting out, rather than staying with the Tigers through some leaner years. That would’ve made it easier for the Tigers to want to move him. What’s unknown is whether Upton will still want to opt out now that he belongs to the Angels. Is he theirs for a month, or is he theirs for a whole bunch of future seasons?

Dave examined the Upton case a week and a half ago. As it happens, this is about as close as it gets. In the simplest of terms, a player would be expected to opt out if he thought he could get a bigger commitment as a free agent. It’s not *that* simple in reality, but it’s close enough. Would Upton stand to find four years and $88.5 million on the market? We can’t know the answer to that for sure, but based on the estimates, he’s right there. His projected value is almost identical to his contract’s remaining terms. That is, if you assume he’s essentially a three-win corner outfielder. That’s how he’s currently projected. Over the past year, he’s been worth 5.5 WAR, but over the past two years, he’s been worth 5.9 WAR, and over the past three, he’s been worth 8.6 WAR. I can’t find any indication that 2017 Upton has meaningfully improved. I think he’s just shaken off a 2016 slump. He’s an above-average slugger, who turned 30 within the past week.

The Angels have the money to absorb Upton, if he wants to stick around. They’re about to lose several players to free agency, and they also have the last remaining Josh Hamilton money coming off the books. So the Angels will have flexibility. If you want to think about it like that, then this is kind of like signing Upton as a free agent in advance. The final four years of his deal have a surplus value right around zero dollars. The Angels traded what they did for Upton’s September and potential October. We don’t know if Upton will want to opt out, and we don’t know if the Angels will want Upton to opt out. With Albert Pujols‘ dead money, the Angels might not want to add on another $22 million a year, long-term. Pujols’ deal reduces their effective payroll, assuming he can’t really come back from where he is.

The focus for now is on now. It’s on having a good month and getting a crack at the playoffs. Upton will give the Angels a boost, provided he performs like Justin Upton. Beyond that, there’s some uncertainty, but Upton’s 2017 is already pretty much locked in as a success. Upton could opt out, and the Angels could prefer that he opts out. If he doesn’t, his contract isn’t bad, but the Angels could trade him anyway, without having to chip in very much. No one here is locked into anything. No matter how it might look, the Angels did this because they want to play in a one-game playoff. Two teams are going to be in there, no matter what. Why shouldn’t they be one of them?

The Angels are most interested in 2017 Justin Upton. They’re certainly less interested in 2018 -2021 Justin Upton. They’ll deal with that part if they have to. For now, there are baseball games to win.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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6 years ago

22M AAV is going to be hard to top, given the reduced value league-wide for hit-only corner outfielders and the presence of a superior one on the market in JD Martinez, but it’s possible Upton fetches a 5 year deal in the 100-105M range. The Angels have 3 years left to make a mark before judgment day so they’d probably want to spend the freed up money immediately in FA anyways, but now they get to pair Trout and Upton together for 4 potential post-seasons instead of 3. Accordingly, I like the deal a lot for the Angels.

6 years ago
Reply to  forum199

It is unfair to say Justin Upton is a hit-only corner outfielder.
His UZR for the past three years is pretty much zero and his DRS is 18.

I just really hope that this move leads to Pujols batting 5th or higher.

6 years ago
Reply to  tung_twista

Assume you meant 5th or lower.

Cool Lester Smoothmember
6 years ago
Reply to  socalkdg

Maybe he meant “6th and 7th” as higher, haha?

6 years ago
Reply to  forum199

I don’t know if he’s going to opt out, but I think what this signals to me is that the Angels will be happy to spend on a corner outfielder this winter.

Obviously, the safe play for Upton is just to ensure he’s the one who gets the money and opt in. Whether it’s him or someone else it’s highly unlikely that the Angels will be without a good left fielder if they want one.

6 years ago
Reply to  forum199

How exactly do you see JD Martinez as a superior player to Upton? Martinez is clearly the better hitter right now, but has been rated out very poorly in the field for two straight years and has never had a season in which he produced positive value on the basepaths. Upton has been more up and down in the field, but has been average this year and he has provided positive value on the bases in every season of his major league career. I’m not saying that Upton is a better player, but he does have almost triple Martinez’s career WAR (31.9 to 11.4), I think we will have to wait and see as to who the market values more, but I wouldn’t be so sure that it will be Martinez.