A Transition of Sluggers: Why the Toronto Blue Jays Should Look to Sign Justin Upton.

The Toronto Blue Jays and aging slugger Jose Bautista are coming to an important cross-road. They should consider signing Justin Upton.

 

With the option to re-sign both designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista seeming next to impossible, it’s becoming clear the Blue Jays front office will have some difficult decisions in the near future. However, if they were to consider taking on additional payroll. A practical solution which could help the team stay competitive, while getting younger at the same time, would be to extend Encarnacion, and sign 28-year-old free agent Justin Upton, to replace their aging star.

With slugger Jose Bautista in the last year of his very team friendly (6 yrs/$78M) contract, there is little doubt the 35-year-old will be looking to cash in, with what will be his final MLB contract, through free agency or an expensive extension. The problem facing Toronto’s front office will be deciding if the fan favourite is worth re-signing through, what would be undoubtedly, his declining years. While there are benefits, both on and off the field, to extending the all-star right fielder, it could very well come with caveats that hamstring the team both financially and competitively, going forward.

With Upton, the Blue Jays would be getting a 28-year-old slugger in his prime years, who if signed to a six-year deal, would be the same age as Bautista is now, when the contract concludes. Admittedly, Upton does not seem to present the same offensive upside that Jose has had during his years as a Blue Jay, but watching a young player enter his prime years would be better than watching an aging superstar fall apart physically before our eyes. In addition, Upton, like Josh Donaldson, could benefit greatly from playing half of his games in the hitter friendly confines of Rogers Centre.

Taking a closer look we can see that Upton (271/352/825) has played the more recent years of his career in typically average to poor hitters parks. A quick look at ballpark factors from 2013 thru 2015, the years he played for both the Braves and Padres, show both parks rank 22nd (Turner) and 29th (Petco) respectfully. During these years he managed a respectable slash line of (262/344/470/814/126 OPS+) while averaging 27 HR and 84 RBI.

A move to Toronto, ranked 3rd in ballpark factors, could bring with it a significant boost to his offensive totals. While the samples are small (11 games) his numbers in AL East parks (272/437/507/944) show he’s had some success. In addition, his numbers while facing AL East opponents (21 games) are stunning (450/536/783/1.319) to say the least. Truthfully, any expectation of the latter would be foolish, however they are something to consider in the decision-making, despite the minimal sample size.

On the defensive side it would be a minor upgrade with Upton showing a +19 DRS over 6539.1 innings while playing right field, whereas Bautista comes in with a -6 DRS over 6536 innings played. Admittedly, Upton does not flash the same type of arm from the outfield as Bautista, however his defensive numbers show he can handle the position. The Virginia native has also played significant time in left field, although with slightly less efficiency, showing a 0 DRS over 3419.2 innings. While neither defensive ranking is gold glove calibre, they do show he can hold his own without being a liability.  

In the short-term the Blue Jays could have an outfield with Upton, Kevin Pillar, and Bautista, with either Michael Saunders or Dalton Pompey providing the backup. Ideally, it would seem prudent to allow Pompey to play in Buffalo for the season since there is little use in letting him miss development time just to come off the bench in Toronto. Saunders is a 3rd year arbitration player with his contract predicted somewhere in the $2.8-$3.0 million neighbourhood, which is not unreasonable for a MLB calibre fourth outfielder. 

In the long-term, the Blue Jays would have in Pompey, Pillar, and up and coming Anthony Alford, a young, very athletic, high upside outfield, with Upton as the veteran cornerstone. The slugger could also serve as a DH in the latter years, should the younger, more agile, stars take over the outfield.

Considering recent comments from Upton’s agent, and the early estimates of a seven-year/$147MM contract seeming rather bloated. It is not unreasonable to believe, in this stagnant market, a deal in the six-year/$115MM range could be offered and accepted. Although a contract of this size would need some creativity, back loading the first year could make the deal more palatable for both sides.

 

*Featured Image Credit: de Jesus was a Capricorn UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0

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W Black

Wade is a long time baseball fan who has been involved with the game for over 30 years. Including as a former college player, amateur pitching coach, and blogger.