Underrated Upton still a prize on free-agent market

Outfielder tops Heyward, Gordon, Cespedes in wRC+ over past two seasons

January 5th, 2016

Justin Upton hasn't received a great deal of public interest on the free-agent market, and at first glance, it's not difficult to see why. In the midst of an outfield glut, he's not the young defensive star (Jason Heyward), he's not the offensive dynamo with the rocket arm (Yoenis Cespedes) and he's not the veteran fielding stud who just led his team to a championship (Alex Gordon).

Valid reasons, all. Yet for all the focus on what Upton isn't, it's easy to lose track of what he is. He may not excel at any one thing, but what he's become is a quietly and consistently above-average offensive player entering only his age-28 season, meaning that even a six-year deal would only commit a team through his age-33 year. (Setting aside the likelihood of opt-outs, as has become the style of the time.)

To understand Upton, you have to understand two seemingly divergent truths. The first is that of the main outfield quartet, there's a case to be made that he's been the best hitter. The second is that there's a certain outlook that says Upton has been a disappointment, which hurts his perception. Let's take the first statement first and put the 2014-15 numbers of the foursome into a simple chart. We're going to use Weighted Runs Created Plus, a park-adjusted advanced stat that sets league average at 100.

Upton comes out easily ahead:

It's even more pronounced if you stretch it back to 2013, as Upton's three-season mark is 127 and the other three come in between 115-117. It was a little different if you only look at 2015, as Cespedes jumped out ahead and Gordon, Upton and Heyward were all similarly in the 120-122 range, but as we discussed here recently, there's plenty of questions whether Cespedes is likely to repeat that performance going forward.

Since Upton has been consistently 20 percent to 30 percent better than average at the plate, he finds himself in some pretty interesting company if you expand the comparison to all of baseball. For example since 2013, he's 33rd, right in the middle of a group including Hunter Pence, Adrian Gonzalez and Adrian Beltre. If you go back five years, which includes his elite 2011 (37 homers, 141 wRC+), and down 2012 (17 homers, 109 wRC+), Upton is … again 33rd, now in a group with Anthony Rizzo, Albert Pujols and Shin-Soo Choo.

Unsurprisingly, Upton's 2016 Steamer projection of .260/.343/.467 (121 wRC+) aligns very well with his actual career total of .271/.352/.473 (121 wRC+), because after eight full seasons in the big leagues, that's who he is. He's not as gifted defensively as any of the other three, but he's younger than both Gordon and Cespedes, and therefore a better bet to produce long term.

So why does it seem to feel like Upton hasn't lived up to expectations? Well, that might have more to do with the expectations than with him. Upton has pretty clearly established himself as an above-average player, one of the better hitters in baseball, yet something less than an elite-level star. That wouldn't be a problem, except that 11 years ago, he was the first overall first pick in what became a loaded 2005 MLB Draft. (Gordon, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki, Mike Pelfrey, Cameron Maybin, Andrew McCutchen and Jay Bruce all went within the first 15 selections.)

Considering that so many other No.1 overall picks since Upton -- David Price, Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Carlos Correa and Gerrit Cole -- have broken out into superstardom, to be merely "pretty good" feels like it comes up short.

But that's neither here nor there in 2016, really, because Upton is what he is. So where might he end up? There's no shortage of teams that need outfielders, and they all may have their preferences. They may, however, want to look at Upton's yearly batted ball tendencies -- each year, he has been hitting more flies, and pulling more balls to left:

That's not a good fit for San Francisco, which could use a left fielder, and that's fine, because Upton has voiced his dislike for hitting in AT&T Park anyway. (For what it's worth, Upton has hit just .233/.319/.371 in 57 career games at AT&T Park, though having to face Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum probably had something to do with that, too.)

If we look at FanGraphs' Park Factors, and sort by the best parks for home runs coming off right-handed bats, we can see something interesting. No. 1 is, unsurprisingly, Colorado, and the Rockies wouldn't be in this derby. No. 2 is Cincinnati, which is also not in the market for expensive outfielders. But No. 3 and No. 4? The White Sox and Blue Jays, both of whom make for intriguing destinations.

We've talked about the White Sox recently, noting that a win-now roster that's already added Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie to Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton needs to add at least one outfielder, and their protected No. 10 overall Draft pick allows them to sign a player with a qualifying offer (like Upton) without as much pain. The Blue Jays haven't come up in these discussions, but it's not hard to see it making sense: With Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion entering the final year of their contracts, a longer-term offensive solution could be used, and there's ample evidence that pull hitters in Toronto do very, very well.

No matter where Upton lands, it seems likely he'll have to wait for Gordon and Cespedes to sign first. That's OK, though. The team that signs Upton will be getting consistently above-average production, with enough youth to at least squint and hope for more. It's hardly a bad consolation prize.