Justin Upton Gives Tigers a High-Priced, All-in Roster with Uphill Climb Ahead

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerFeatured Columnist IVMarch 31, 2017

San Diego Padres left fielder Justin Upton (10) fields the ball against the Arizona Diamondbacks in the sixth inning during a baseball game, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

The Detroit Tigers entered the offseason with a handful of expensive long-term contracts already in hand, and they have since added two more amid a flurry of offseason moves that has overhauled their roster.

As such, it's a little strange we can only look at them as a team with a fighting chance rather than as, you know, a favorite.

But first, the news! Roughly a month-and-a-half after Detroit added star right-hander Jordan Zimmermann on a $110 million contract, the word Monday night was that the club added star left fielder Justin Upton on a $132.75 million contract. Bob Nightengale of USA Today had the scoop:

With Upton aboard, Detroit's Opening Day payroll for 2016 figures to be roughly $200 million. In a time like this, one recalls what Tigers owner Mike Ilitch said after he signed Zimmermann, via Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press"It might sound silly, but I don't care about spending money."

But as is usually the case these days, there's a wrinkle in Upton's deal. According to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, the former Arizona Diamondback, Atlanta Brave and San Diego Padre can opt out of his contract after his second year—in 2017.

So, rather than a six-year contract, think of this as a two-year pact with a four-year player option. And that's just one reason to like the move for the Tigers.

Another is the simple fact that a deal worth a little over $22 million per year isn't outrageous for a player like Upton. The 28-year-old is more youthful than your typical free agent, and he offers a solid mix of patience, power and speed. 

While we're noting positives, we can also grant that Upton gives Detroit a lineup that looks pretty sweet on paper.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Upton is joining a Tigers offense that finished just 10th in the American League in runs scored in 2015 but was a much more impressive third in OPS. The only notable absence now is Yoenis Cespedes, who was shipped to the New York Mets at last year's trade deadline.

As it happens, Upton is a good candidate to replace the .829 OPS and 18 homers Cespedes gave Detroit in his four months with the team. Upton owns a career .825 OPS and has averaged about 25 home runs per season since 2009. 

According to FanGraphs, the Steamer projection system sees much the same in store for Upton in 2016, pegging him for an .811 OPS and 27 home runs. He should also give the Tigers more steals than they got from Cespedes, as he's pegged for 12 stolen bases after swiping 19 in 2015.

In short, Detroit is adding a good offensive player to its 2016 lineup. Count Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports among those who like how the rest of said lineup looks:

Indeed. Upton does what he does. Miguel Cabrera is still an elite hitter when healthy. Victor Martinez is only a year removed from being arguably the best hitter in baseball. J.D. Martinez built on his 2014 breakout by slugging 38 homers in 2015. Ian Kinsler is one of the league's better top-of-the-order hitters. Jose Iglesias showed in 2015 that he can be an outstanding bottom-of-the-order hitter.

The rest of Detroit's roster doesn't sound too shabby on paper either. The Tigers finally have some bullpen depth after acquiring Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Lowe and Justin Wilson. And with Zimmermann leading Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez, Detroit also has a rotation that could be pretty good. If these pieces click alongside the Tigers' lineup, the AL Central could be theirs once again.

As strong as Detroit's roster sounds on paper, however, there is the inconvenient reality that the games aren't played on paper. They're played in reality, which has been known to be less forgiving.

Gregory Bull/Associated Press

Let's remember that this is a team that's coming off a 74-87 record that put it in last place in its division in 2015. And though Upton is part of a larger trend of upgrades, there are lingering questions that are still, well, lingering.

For one, there's the question of whether Detroit's lineup will be done in by its same-sidedness. With the exception of the switch-hitting Victor Martinez, the Tigers' projected lineup is entirely right-handed. Perhaps that would be a wise move in a division filled with left-handed starters, but the only team in the AL Central that has more than one of those is the Chicago White Sox.

For two, there's the question of how much some veteran hitters can be counted on. Cabrera and Victor Martinez are coming off a year in which injuries limited them to 119 and 120 games, respectively, and both will be another year into their 30s in 2016. The same goes for Kinsler, who may be due for some regression after his 2015 season outpaced his recent track record.

For three, there's also some uncertainty in the Tigers' starting rotation. Zimmermann should be his usual reliable self at the top, but health and effectiveness have eluded Verlander and Sanchez the last two years. After them, Daniel Norris is an unproven youngster, and Mike Pelfrey is a merchant of "meh."

Where did the Tigers fit in the AL Central before they signed Upton? Had you asked Richard Justice of MLB.com, he would have told you fourth behind the Cleveland Indians, the White Sox and the reigning World Series champion Kansas City Royals. This happens to be the same opinion of FanGraphs' WAR projections for the 2016 season.

Neither Justice's appraisal nor FanGraphs' math sound out of whack. Detroit is better with Upton, but not to an extent that it's now clearly the AL Central's top dog. It's a crowded division, and the only way the Tigers will end up on top of it in 2016 is if they get Lady Luck and Father Time to cooperate with the expensive, high-risk, high-reward roster they've constructed.

This is not, however, to say Detroit is wasting its time. It went into this offseason with the choice to either let an aging roster decay into nothing or to prop it up as best it could. Door No. 2 was the easy call, and it's hard to say the Tigers could have done any better than they have. They've taken a roster that was pretty bad and made it respectable.

Given that, arranging for a fighting chance is a turn for the better.


Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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