Why Is 3-Time All-Star Justin Upton Being Left Out to Dry in Free Agency?

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Why Is 3-Time All-Star Justin Upton Being Left Out to Dry in Free Agency?
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Just this week, baseball's public relations folks sent out a handy list of spring training reporting dates. Yes, it's getting to be that time of year.

So why doesn't Justin Upton have a job yet?

He's not alone, of course. This winter's free-agent market moved slowly overall, and very slowly when it came to outfielders. The Dec. 15 Jason Heyward signing was supposed to get things going, but it didn't. Now here we are in the middle of January, and Upton and Yoenis Cespedes both remain unsigned.

Gregory Bull/Associated Press

It's never safe to speculate that a lack of rumors indicates a lack of interest or that a long stay on the market means a player will settle for a cut-rate contract. Max Scherzer didn't sign his record-setting deal with the Washington Nationals until Jan. 21 last year.

Still, there's been little enough buzz about Upton that it's hard to even come up with a favorite to sign him. And there's been enough chatter that maybe Upton should take a one-year contract that agent Larry Reynolds felt the need to respond.

"We are not considering shorter-term deals at this time," Reynolds told MLB Network's Jon Heyman.

In fact, an official of one team that has talked to Reynolds said the agent is looking for a "long, long" contract and suggested the lack of apparent movement on Upton may in part be due to an asking price that has been too high for the current market.

That may be, but at a time when many teams seem to be flush with cash and power hitting is supposed to be at a premium, Upton really should have plenty of options. He shouldn't have to take a one-year deal, even though he could go back into what will almost certainly be a much weaker free-agent market next winter.

The outfielder-heavy market this winter didn't hurt Heyward, even though he hit fewer home runs the last two years combined than Upton hit in 2015 alone. And while the market may have kept Alex Gordon's contract in a range where the Kansas City Royals could afford to keep him, Gordon still signed for $18 million a year.

John Bazemore/Associated Press
Justin Upton and Jason Heyward, teammates in 2014 with the Atlanta Braves, were treated differently on this winter's free-agent market.

Heyward and Gordon are both better defensive players than Upton and partly because of that, both are more popular with teams focused more heavily on analytics. But Upton's defense is nowhere near bad enough to account for the lukewarm interest.

Then again, this isn't exactly a new story. The San Diego Padres never found an Upton trade offer they really liked last July, and they held on to him even though he was a pending free agent almost certain to leave at the end of the year.

It's all enough to make you wonder if there's something else going on, if there's something about Upton we don't know but many teams do. But when I asked an official from one of Upton's former clubs if he understood the seemingly low level of interest, he said he didn't.

"I like Justin a lot," the official said.

Just not enough to sign him to a big contract, it seems.

It's not Upton's age. He'll play most of next year at 28, so even a long-term deal now should carry him through the prime years of his career.

What's more likely is that trends in the market and in the game have worked against Upton. Analytics work against him, especially on the defensive side.

But there also seems to be something of a perception issue. The official from Upton's former team praised his character but admitted some baseball people who don't know Upton well mistake his quiet demeanor for a lack of leadership skills.

Another executive who knows Upton well said he likes him, but not as the focal point of the team.

In fact, the question of what type of player Upton is has followed him from club to club, ever since the Arizona Diamondbacks made him the first overall draft pick in 2005 and watched him debut in the big leagues at age 19.

Ed Andrieski/Associated Press
When Upton was 22 years old, Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Josh Byrnes was all smiles after signing him to a long-term contract.

"There were some people who wanted him to be [Ken Griffey Jr.]," one of the executives said.

When Kevin Towers, then the Diamondbacks general manager, traded Upton to the Atlanta Braves in January 2013, Towers cited the expectations as one reason for making the deal. He felt there would always be added pressure on Upton in Arizona and expressed hope that getting away from his first team might help.

The Braves had already signed Upton's brother, then known as B.J., to a club-record five-year, $75.25 million contract. The story of the two brothers playing together was a spring training special that year, with the Braves expressing hope that both players would thrive.

Instead, B.J. badly underperformed. He later asked to be called by his given name of Melvin Upton Jr. By April 2015, the Braves traded both Uptons to the Padres.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

The brothers are different players and different people, but you almost wonder if Melvin's bad contract has teams wondering about signing Justin for big money, too. That shouldn't be the case, especially since when Justin signed his big contract with the Diamondbacks in the spring of 2010, he made it look good by finishing fourth in the Most Valuable Player balloting a year later.

He signed that six-year, $51.25 million deal on March 3, which was no problem because he was already in spring training.

By March 3 of this year, will Justin Upton have a spring training camp to go to?

You'd think so. Then again, you would have thought that he'd have a team by Jan. 13, too.

 

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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