TEMPE, Ariz. -- It's an important season for veteran outfielder Justin Upton, as he's heading into the final year of the five-year, $106 million deal he signed before the 2018 season.
Upton, 34, has dealt with health issues in recent seasons and was limited to just 63 games in 2019 and 89 games in 2021. He's also seen his production decline over the last three years, batting just .211/.299/.414 with 38 homers and 103 RBIs in 194 games while grading out as a below-average left fielder defensively.
But Upton, who is earning $28 million in 2022 and has a full no-trade clause, is fully healthy and the Angels plan to experiment with him at first base, where he could potentially serve as the backup to left-handed-hitting Jared Walsh. Upton would face lefties to give Walsh a break, and he could also platoon with lefty Brandon Marsh in left field as well. Upton is a career .259/.359/.493 hitter against left-handers and batted .225/.355/.483 against them last year.
“We have him working at first base because there might be an opportunity to give Walshy a day off against a tough left-hander,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “There’s different ways to get his bat in the lineup. He's getting his typical work in the outfield corners, but we wanted to introduce him at first base just in case that became pertinent."
It’s not the first time Upton has been introduced to the position. He worked at first base in early August, though he never logged playing time there and saw his season end on Sept. 5 due to a back strain. Upton, however, was receptive to the idea when meeting with general manager Perry Minasian and Maddon at the start of Spring Training.
“We talked to J-Up about it and he worked there a little bit last year,” Minasian said. “I think versatility is important and we’re trying to be as versatile as we can as a club. It makes Joe’s job easier. It’s a shortened spring, but there’s still time to experiment with things. He was a shortstop in high school.”
Upton said he took a bit more time off than usual after last season to let his back heal, but he believes he has plenty of time to get ready for Opening Day.
“There’s a lot of time in the offseason,” Upton said. “A lot of the baseball stuff, I usually don’t start until I have a nice base anyway. So it wasn’t much different.”
Upton added he’s ready for whatever role the Angels have for him. He excelled in a short stint as the club’s leadoff hitter, batting .313/.407/.552 with five homers and 14 RBIs in 25 games, but he also acknowledged it’s not likely he bats first again this year.
“I have a desire to play wherever they need me,” Upton said. “If that comes up again, I'm comfortable with it. I don't foresee that, but if it comes up, I'll be ready as usual.”
Maddon wouldn’t commit to Upton as the club's starting left fielder just yet, as he has to compete with the likes of Marsh, Jo Adell and Taylor Ward. There's also a scenario where both Marsh and Adell make the club, which would likely move Upton to the platoon role with Marsh and possibly Walsh.
“It hasn’t been determined yet,” Maddon said of Upton’s role. “Mike [Trout] is in center and then you got him, Marsh, Ward and Adell. So it’s a nice issue or problem to have. We haven’t fully finalized that yet. But he’s absolutely in the discussion.”