We're wading past the middle of January, and Justin Upton still doesn't have a job.
It seems crazy: We're talking about a five-tool 28-year-old here, and baseball is littered with teams that could use a power bat and an outfield upgrade.
But that's been the nature of this winter's hitters market. Chris Davis, MLB's reigning home run leader, didn't ink a deal until Jan. 16. As of this writing, Cuban masher Yoenis Cespedes is sitting with Upton in the unemployment line.
This could be the moment, then, for the New York Mets to pounce. Not on Cespedes, last season's trade-deadline hero, but on Upton.
Davis wound up landing a seven-year, $161 million contract with the Baltimore Orioles. And MLB Network's Jon Heyman reported Sunday that there is "a lot of interest/activity" in Cespedes, meaning there's "no chance" he'll sign a short-term pact.
Upton, on the other hand, might be willing to accept a one-year deal and re-enter the market next year, when the pool of marquee free agents will be much shallower. If so, the Mets should make a play, add a bat to complement their arsenal of aces and, in the process, ace the offseason.
So far, the Mets have mostly subtracted from the team that won the National League pennant a few moths ago.
Second baseman and postseason dinger-monster Daniel Murphy jumped to the division-rival Washington Nationals, though the Mets did acquire his replacement, Neil Walker, from the Pittsburgh Pirates. And Cespedes, who ignited the offense after coming over from the Detroit Tigers in July, now appears to be out of New York's price range.
The pitching staff remains top-notch, with Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz headlining a rotation that should also get Zack Wheeler back from Tommy John surgery sometime in 2016.
That's as strong a starting five as you'll find. But the Mets will have to score enough to support them if they hope to keep last year's playoff juju going.
Upton seems like a perfect fit.
Michael Conforto impressed during his rookie season in 2015, hitting .270 with an .841 OPS in 56 games. He's currently atop the depth chart in left, and he looks like an important part of the Mets' future.
Upton, though, would represent a step up and slot nicely into the middle of New York's lineup. Last season, while playing his home games at pitcher-friendly Petco Park, Upton clubbed 26 home runs with 81 RBI and swiped 19 bases, his highest theft total since 2011.
His defensive reputation is mixed, though he put up eight defensive runs saved in 2015, per FanGraphs, and is an excellent overall athlete.
Mostly, he'd take pressure off the likes of Lucas Duda, Curtis Granderson and David Wright, capable hitters but not guys you can necessarily count on to carry an offense.
(Speaking of Wright, he and Upton played together on a high school travel squad once upon a time, for what that's worth.)
OK, back to this one-year-deal business. Is it actually possible that a player of Upton's talent and relative youth could be had for a single season? It seems crazy, but there is precedent.
In 2014, Nelson Cruz declined the qualifying offer and became a free agent, but wound up signing a one-year, $8 million pact with the Baltimore Orioles, for whom he went on to bash 40 home runs.
It's not a perfect analogy. Cruz was five years older than Upton is now and was still trailing the stain of a 50-game PED suspension in 2013.
The point, though, is that it's not unheard of for premier hitters to sign so-called pillow contracts to increase their value. And, again, next year's free-agent class is weak overall, meaning Upton would likely have far more suitors, assuming he remains healthy and productive.
Speaking of suitors, there could be more with cash to burn next winter, as MLB.com's AJ Cassavell pointed out:
Part of the reason it's taken so long for Cespedes and Upton to sign is that the marketplace has been short on buyers. That could change next offseason, when Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira come off the books for the Yankees. The Cardinals will most likely lose Matt Holliday, leaving them with a hole to fill in their outfield. And the Giants, Blue Jays and A's could all find themselves in need of corner-outfield help, given some of their pending departures.
Undoubtedly, Upton and his camp will attempt to exhaust all possibilities for a lucrative long-term deal before they settle for less.
His agent indicated as much, telling Heyman on Jan. 8, "We are not considering shorter term deals at this time."
But the more you think about it, the less crazy it sounds for Upton to go somewhere for a season, put up his typical numbers and dangle his services again in 12 months.
Of course, if he's willing to go somewhere on a shorter deal, the number of interested clubs would likely increase. And you could argue he'd be better served going somewhere other than Citi Field, the third-worst hitters yard in the game last season, according to ESPN's Park Factors statistic.
With the Mets, though, Upton would have a chance to play for a winner. And few things increase your profile and value as well as shining on the October stage.
We're a long way from that, obviously. But as February creeps closer, Upton's options may begin to dwindle. And the Mets should be there waiting with arms—and wallet—wide open.
All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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