The price tag on free agent Justin Upton may be more than he’s worth. Do the Boston Red Sox really want to spend so much on him, when they have options?
Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe discussed, in his latest article, how Upton still hasn’t signed anywhere and that the Red Sox could be in the running for his services. Or, at least, maybe they should be: “OK, they spent a ton of money on David Price. They acquired the best closer in Craig Kimbrel. But [Chris] Young was their only offensive upgrade. While Upton has had some consistency issues, he’s also been very productive offensively, and he’s a good outfielder.”
It’s not easy to dispute that point. Upton is a career .271 with 190 home runs and 616 RBIs in nine years.
However, Cafardo admits that the price for Upton would have to be significantly less than what has been rumored. “There’s a limit to how much money the Red Sox can spend. They are already over the luxury tax threshold of $189 million.” Yet, Upton’s agent Larry Reynolds said to ESPN.com that “Upton continues to seek a longer-term deal even as the free-agent market dwindles and spring camps open next month.”
Let’s put the madness into perspective.
Upton is a right-handed bat. Three out of the four Red Sox outfielders hit the same way: Mookie Betts, Rusney Castillo, and Young. Expected center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and possible outfield replacements Brock Holt and Travis Shaw hit left-handed. The plethora of bats on either side of the plate is of no advantage, there.
Not that big of a deal, if Upton was ridiculously more productive than the rest of these young men. Upton is 28-years-old, the same age as Castillo and younger than Young. Yet, his batting average in 2015 was two points lower than Castillo’s and one below Young’s percentage. Upton’s on-base percentage (.336) was better than Castillo’s .288; however, Betts (.341) and Holt (.349) bested him in that category, with Bradley Jr. (.335) following close behind. The story was the same in slugging: beating some by a narrow margin while being bested by Betts and Bradley Jr. by a fair one.
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The only pieces of hard evidence of Upton’s higher productivity are, admittedly, the most important: home runs (26) and RBIS (81). The closest that any of the Red Sox outfielders got to those totals was Betts’ 18 home runs and 77 RBIs. The next best was Holt with 45 RBIs and Bradley Jr. with 43 RBIs. Both of them nowhere near the home run total.
Even then, however, the argument could be made that not all positions in a batting lineup are made equal. Upton found himself the fourth batter, the cleanup spot, to start the 2015 campaign for the San Diego Padres. Throughout the year, Upton was positioned to be the hitter to produce runs through his bat, and struck out 159 times for his trouble. The closest Red Sox outfielder to do the same was Holt at 97 strikeouts. The starting three Boston outfielders had 82 or less. None of the Red Sox outfielders had plum spots in the lineup to drive people home.
In fact, with runners in scoring position, Upton is only in the middle of the Red Sox pack. Betts’ average with men in scoring position was .333, Bradley Jr.’s average was .307, Holt’s was .306, and Castillo’s was the best at .354. Upton’s average was only .277, good enough to beat Young at .267 and Shaw at .250 but not enough to distance himself from the others at any great length.
Does that mean that the Red Sox outfielders are sizeably better without Upton? Certainly not. One could make the argument that if Castillo or Bradley Jr. were to have any setbacks in their development, as Betts looks primed for a long career in Boston, Upton could come in to give the Red Sox some offensive depth. One could further argue that Castillo, if things don’t change for him, would be the one that gets replaced, as Upton’s home run and RBI numbers are much greater than the Cuban’s. However, one could also argue that Castillo can only go up from here, as he has had only one almost-full season in the majors last year, while Upton hit a lower batting average with nine seasons already under his belt.
Baseball-Reference.com has Upton projected to hit .260 with 24 home runs and 76 RBIs, but that’s based on last season’s numbers on a team that he may or may not play for again. Do those numbers spell out a high price tag for a long-term investment? Maybe for some teams, but for the Red Sox?
It’s not like the Red Sox couldn’t just eat another contract, since they’re already doing so with Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. Both men may pan out in 2016 and they may get injured for months or fall victim to ‘dehydration’ again. Whatever the case, if Upton were to replace Castillo in left field or any other scenario, a couple of Red Sox outfielders would have to be shifted around to make the move work. Considering that they just made the move to bring Young in as backup, would the Red Sox then trade him or one of the others to another team? Or would they just warm the bench, as only multi-million-dollar paperweights can do? It seems unlikely that the Red Sox would go down this road, at least for a really good outfielder who produces more runs out of the cleanup spot but at a lower rate than most of the outfielders the Red Sox already have.