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The case for acquiring Justin Upton

Trade season isn’t completely over yet.

Detroit Tigers v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

The Cardinals are doing their best to make things interesting. After snapping an 8-game winning streak last night, they sit just one game behind the Cubs for the division. They also sit 4 12 games behind the Rockies and Diamondbacks, who have struggled after unexpected hot starts to the season.

While the Cards were quiet at the what is commonly called the “Trade Deadline”, July 31st actually only represents the non-waiver trade deadline. If a player can clear what are called “revocable waivers”, they are still free to be traded. If that trade occurs before September, those players are eligible for the postseason. There’s more intricacies at work, and those not familiar can learn more here.

Anyway, one of the players who has cleared waivers so far is Justin Upton of the Tigers. While the Cards’ chances looked bleak at the non-waiver deadline, things have obviously improved. I couldn’t recommend making a big upgrade at that moment, and really I would have preferred it if they sold. The Cardinals evidently didn’t care for the prices being offered, and decided to hold out hope. Thus far that hope has been rewarded.

With the improved outlook, I’d like to see what type of upgrades the Cards could make this month. While any deal the Cardinals do make will likely have much less of an impact on either this year’s chances or future payroll, there are a few big reasons to like an acquisition of Upton. Here’s the first one:

Justin Upton is a significant upgrade

Upton has had a splendid season, hitting to a 136 wRC+ on the season, a big part of the reason he’s generated 3.7 WAR thus far. Among Cardinals, that would make him second to Tommy Pham in both categories. It would come at a position of need as well. Utilizing Fangraphs’ projections, which rely on an average of the two best public projection systems - Steamer and Zips - here’s how each position projects to finish the year for the Cards:

Despite many Cardinals’ fans being critical of both Yadier Molina’s extension and Dexter Fowler’s deal last winter, the positions they fill represent strengths for the Cards. As of right now, often-demoted Randal Grichuk and recently-demoted Stephen Piscotty - who have both had disappointing seasons - project to get most of the time the rest of the way in right.

While Upton has spent the bulk of his most recent years in left, he played in right often early in his career. If he wasn’t comfortable with that, Tommy Pham could shift over to right.

Yes, the team has a lot of options in the outfield. I haven’t even mentioned Jose Martinez, who has impressed me a lot this season. He’s definitely not Jeremy Hazelbaker 2.0. The Cards made out really well in acquiring him for nothing.

Yes, it leaves Piscotty on the outside looking in, despite the fact that they just gave him an extension. His $33.5M contract is reliever money now-a-days, it’s not something that demands a guaranteed starting spot. Stephen would have to produce to play, and with Tommy Pham as a starter and regular ole injury risk for the other two, Piscotty will find playing time if he bounces back.

While the Cardinals current depth is nice, it involves a lot of question marks. Here’s how Upton compares to the current options the Cardinals have in the outfield:

Current options compared to Upton

Possible outfielders 2017 wRC+ 2017 PA 2017 WAR Projected wRC+ Projected WAR/600
Possible outfielders 2017 wRC+ 2017 PA 2017 WAR Projected wRC+ Projected WAR/600
Justin Upton 136 453 3.7 123 3.1
Tommy Pham 138 363 3.8 109 2.7
Dexter Fowler 116 361 1.7 110 2.4
Jose Martinez 123 186 0.6 95 1.2
Randal Grichuk 92 321 0.5 95 1.1
Stephen Piscotty 90 291 0.1 101 1.0

Upton would project to be the best Cards outfielder right now. Tommy Pham is currently the best, but also sports an All-World ability to suffer injuries. While the outfield isn’t exactly short on options, it’s in no position to reject a 3 WAR player. That’s something that room can be made for.

Justin Upton should cost extremely little in a trade

As we covered earlier, Upton has cleared waivers. That means that all 29 other teams had a chance to put in a claim on the outfielder and pick him up for just his remaining salary, but all of them declined. The outfield market just isn’t one with a lot of demand right now. Upton’s contract - which we’ll get into shortly - is also unique, and it’s long-term uncertainty isn’t something teams really want to deal with in the middle of the season.

The fact that he cleared waivers means that the Tigers couldn’t realistically ask for anything of significant value for him. They’d probably have to eat some money just to get anything more than a fringe prospect back for him. Which is enticing because of the next reason...

Justin Upton is worth his remaining contract

Originally, Upton signed an even-loaded six year deal for $132.8M prior to the 2016 season. That deal contains an opt-out decision, one that is coming up at the end of the season. He’ll have to decide whether to stay with his current deal which offers him $88.5M over the next four years, or take another crack at free agency.

In the latest off-season, I tried my hand at finding the average cost of win in free agency, coming right at $9M a win. However, the only reason I went to the trouble was because I couldn’t seem to find anyone else interested in doing so. That’s not the case anymore. As part of a must-read series that I strongly encourage anyone interested in baseball contract analysis to check out, Matt Schwartz found the average cost of a win in 2017 to be $10.3M, and estimated that in the future we’d see a 5.9% increase per year going forward. That would mean a $11.1M price of a win in the next off-season

Using this along with an average aging curve, and Upton’s current projection, here’s how Upton’s contract grades out after this year, assuming he doesn’t opt-out.

Justin Upton remaining contract breakdown

Justin Upton 2018 (age 30) 2019 (age 31) 2020 (age 32) 2021 (age 33) Total
Justin Upton 2018 (age 30) 2019 (age 31) 2020 (age 32) 2021 (age 33) Total
Price of WAR $11.1 $11.7 $12.4 $13.2 $11.8
Projected WAR 2.9 2.2 1.7 1.1 7.8
Projected value $32.2 $25.5 $21.2 $13.9 $92.8

On the surface, this doesn’t look like an underwater contract to me. That said, word is Upton is unlikely to opt-out of his deal, and it’s verified by him passing through waivers unclaimed. Since the above method just uses the average cost of a win, it doesn’t take into account the current lack of demand for corner-outfielders. Most winning teams are mostly set in that aspect, so there’s reason to believe Upton wouldn’t get as much as calculated here.

One reason that could cause Upton to opt-out anyway is the fact that the Tigers are likely at the beginning of what will be a very difficult rebuilding process. Maybe he couldn’t find quite as good of a deal that he currently has, but he could pick to play for a team actively pursuing the playoffs. Upton has a no-trade clause that allows him to block trades to 20 teams, though which teams those are doesn’t appear to be public knowledge. If a contending team is a selling point for him though, that’s a point in the Cards’ favor.

$88.5M would be represent a sizable investment, but consider this: Giancarlo Stanton would cost more than $200M more. Stanton’s projection is about 1 12 wins better than Upton, but I think the Cards could find an extra 1 12 win upgrade elsewhere if they were willing to spend Stanton-level money. They could sign one of a few front-line aces that could hit free agency this coming offseason and still not spend the amount Stanton is owed over Upton. Stanton’s deal also has an opt-out, and that comes after the 2020 season, which would reduce his cost. However, he essentially has to not decline at all by then for it to be financially worth it for him to not opt-out. On top of all that, Stanton has a full no-trade clause, and word is he isn’t interested in playing in St. Louis.

Acquiring Upton would allow the Cards to trade for another upgrade

You might notice that when I was talking about the Cardinals’ outfield depth I skipped over the slew of prospects currently inhabiting the Triple-A and Double-A outfields. That’s because, frankly, I don’t think any of them are significant enough to hold off making an upgrade. While there is depth, that doesn’t equate to an assumption that acquiring a 3-WAR outfielder would be a waste of resources.

Many of these prospects simply don’t profile as above-average regulars in the future. While maybe one of them could take some big steps forward, it’s certainly not something to bet on. Baseball America for instance declined to put any Cardinal outfielders on their midseason top 100 list, despite their proximity to the majors.

The projections seem to agree. Here are the six outfield prospects I’ve been referring to, along with their age and current projected Major League wRC+:

Current Cardinals top outfield prospects

Outfield prospects age Projected wRC+
Outfield prospects age Projected wRC+
Randy Arozarena 22 86
Jose Adolis Garcia 24 86
Harrison Bader 23 82
Tyler O'Neill 22 80
Magneuris Sierra 21 60
Oscar Mercado 22 56

At this point, you might be tempted to say Well yeah, they’re still young and developing though, they’ll likely be better in a year or two. However, if you consult the average aging curve I linked to earlier, that’s far from a fair assumption. Players on average decline from the moment they enter the league. I set the first year at 22, and that’s still the case. OK, some really young years forecast an improvement, but it’s a rounding error away from flat growth.

At just 21, perhaps Magneuris Sierra is a good bet to get better, but he also profiles as a very weak hitter, and I agree with that assessment. I also think that Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill both have a difficult road ahead of them thanks to their atrocious non-contact game. Oscar Mercado is in the middle of his first above-average year at the plate at any minor league level, and it involves a .343 BABIP.

The best player of this bunch perhaps is Randy Arozarena, who The Red Baron gave us an update on just yesterday. In his first 153 plate appearances against Double-A competition, Arozarena is posting a double digit walk rate along with a lower than average strikeout rate, and The Baron sees him as “a capable center fielder in his own right“.

At 22, he has a better chance than say, Jose Adolis Garcia to turn himself into an above-average regular at the major league level. Though I’m glad that The Baron is high on Arozarena, he doesn’t have the type of projection to hold off on making any upgrades to the outfield in the meantime. “Too many good players” just isn’t a real problem anyway.

Instead, I’d like the Cards to use an Upton move as a springboard towards making another move, likely in the winter at this point. With the upper-minors outfield prospect depth, the team could deal from an area of surplus to get a big upgrade elsewhere.

It’s exciting to see Carson Kelly with the big league team, but it’s obvious that a serious injury to Molina is his only path to significant playing time at this point. The Cards may get more value from dealing Kelly than by keeping him as a mostly unused back-up the next few years.

Two of the outfield prospects, Kelly, and one of the many pitching prospects climbing through the upper minors right now would represent a significant amount of ammo to trade for a separate major league upgrade, without causing a major blow to the team’s long-term picture.

Again, this isn’t a very likely move. Upton also probably doesn’t meet your definition of an elite level talent. He’d slot in as one of the Cards’ best players though, upgrading at their current weakest position. He’d do so during a stretch run where the Cards are suddenly looking better than they have all season, and have a realistic chance of upsetting the Cubs. If he doesn’t opt-out he’d come at a reasonable, non-crippling long-term salary and at no real prospect cost. It would also create an opportunity to trade for another upgrade elsewhere in the offseason. Overall, there’s a lot of reasons to like the idea of Justin Upton wearing the Birds on the Bat.