Last year, despite playing in an awful park for hitters, a 27 year old Justin Upton hit .251/.336/.454 with 26 homers, 19 stolen bases, and was worth around four wins. He was not an MVP candidate. He wasn't transcendent. But he was very, very good for a Padres team that was very, very blah. Now loosed onto the free agent market, nobody seems particularly motivated to pony up for a guy still in the prime of his career.
It's been an incredibly quiet offseason for Upton, who was once considered one of the brightest young stars in baseball. After hitting .300/.366/.532 as a 21 year old and .289/.369/.529 at 23, the Diamondbacks, strangely, turned on the youngster after a subpar 2012. They questioned his effort and his mental toughness and his leadership (he was 24; give a kid a break) and dealt him to the Braves. Since then, Upton has been a perfectly perfunctory outfielder.
So it's weird that Upton's only gotten nibbles from clubs like the Orioles, Angels, and White Sox, teams who are hungry for a corner outfielder and motivated to put a winning team on the field. There has been some speculation recently that Upton might be willing to take a one-year, high money deal, and reenter a weaker free agent market next offseason. While that certainly would require Upton to bet on himself and his health, and provides him no long term security, it would be an interesting strategy.
Once upon a time, when MLB owners were still trying to figure out how free agency would work, Charlie Finley proposed that the league should have every player sign one-year deals, and thereby flood the market with talent every offseason. In theory, this would slow the rise of salaries significantly, as there would be an abundance of resources available each offseason. Then union president Marvin Miller was horrified at the thought. The rest of MLB's owners, however, couldn't see the virtue in Finley's plan, and dropped it.
But in this case, Upton would literally be the only elite free agent willing to take a one year deal, and the kind of future financial flexibility signing him provides would actually add to his value. After all, here's a list of the teams that could use a Justin Upton in the outfield on a one year commitment:
All of the teams.
Ok, that's an oversimplification. Clubs like the Phillies or the Brewers, who have no intention of competing in 2016 and who are working to keep costs low, shouldn't get involved. Teams who already have two good corner outfielders, and who can't shift one of them to center (such as the Pirates, Dodgers or the Marlins; I know, I was shocked too) also shouldn't apply. But, honestly, virtually every other team who has a remote interest in being competitive should be all over Justin Upton on a one year deal. Because, regardless of whether he's a good long term investment, there's no denying that Upton will make a club better in the short run. And, given the talent we know he has, there's still a significant chance for a breakout MVP-caliber season from him. So, now, seriously, are the clubs that could use him and how they could implement him into their roster:
They're currently projected to start an untested free agent from Korea and L.J. Hoes. Yikes.
Boston Red Sox
Rusney Castillo is, by no means, a sure thing, and the Red Sox have finished last in three of the last four seasons.
Chicago White Sox
Avisail Garcia is only 24, but showed nothing last year in the field or at the plate, and shouldn't be starting for a club with playoff aspirations.
Michael Brantley might be out for the first part of 2016 and right field consists of Lonnie Chisenhall and Collin Cowgill.
An aging team shouldn't want to take on more long term deals, but a short term one to improve left field over Tyler Collins and Steven Moya? That's a no-brainer.
Already sort of set with Colby Rasmus and George Springer in the corners, but Springer could DH with Upton in right, while Evan Gattis moves to first base.
Kansas City Royals
Jarrod Dyson is a lot of things, but a good starting right fielder is not one of them.
Los Angeles Angels
Left field is a black hole at the moment and Arte Moreno hasn't acted out in a while.
Honestly, I'm not sure who's starting where, and it would be nice to lock at least one of these positions down while providing a little bit of security in terms of 2016 performance.
St. Louis Cardinals
Signing Upton would allow them to play the hot hand between Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty in center field.
Look, I like the Josh Hamilton comeback story, but you push him to one side in a second for a year of Upton.
Toronto Blue Jays
It's cute that they traded Ben Revere and seem to think that Michael Saunders is going to be healthy.
Understandably, it's a long list. And, while Upton's agent claims that his client isn't interested in a short term deal, the bidding war that could erupt if he changes his mind could drive his price incredibly high. Perhaps to as much as $25 or $30 million.
There's a lot for Upton to consider here as well, if he tries to decide how he might approach the short term deal. What additional stipulations will add to his value and further his goal of getting paid? If his team isn't in the playoff hunt, does a no trade clause provide Upton more leverage to get a long term deal if he's dealt at the trade deadline, essentially forcing the desperate club acquiring him to give him the free agent deal he wanted all along? Or does that severely tank his market, especially since, if he's dealt mid-season, he would not be burdened with draft pick compensation. Can he get a stipulation from whoever signs him that they won't tag him with a qualifying offer?
All of this is left up in the air at the moment. But if Upton does decide he is willing to take a pillow contract, it should start a bidding war, and be a proof of concept that could change the way free agents approach the offseason in the future.