DETROIT -- Once again, the Tigers have pounced on a January deal. After weeks of insisting they didn't have the room for a long-term contract with a prominent free-agent outfielder, they spent Monday coming to terms with slugger Justin Upton on a six-year contract worth $132.75 million, a source told MLB.com.
The deal, first reported by Bob Nightengale of USA Today, is pending a physical and includes a player opt-out after the second season. The Tigers have not yet confirmed the agreement; an announcement could come as soon as Wednesday.
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The right-handed-hitting Upton, one of the biggest names in free agency this offseason, batted .251/.336/.454 last year. His youth made the 28-year-old a prime candidate for a long-term deal, but the longer the free-agent outfielder market lingered, the further that seemed to fall into question. Although many teams were tied to Upton, many were believed to be seeking a short-term contract.
Upton's agent, Larry Reynolds, released a statement a week and a half ago saying his client was targeting a long-term contract, a proclamation that seemed to rule out the Tigers. Though owner Mike Ilitch said in November that he didn't care about the money in his long-running pursuit of a World Series title, general manager Al Avila told a Detroit radio station last month that a long-term deal with an outfielder like Upton or Yoenis Cespedes could turn their payroll situation "pretty ugly."
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The Tigers were believed to be focused on a short-term deal until last week, when Ilitch gave the go-ahead to explore long-term contract talks. From there, the deal came together over the past couple days, with Avila and manager Brad Ausmus traveling to Arizona to talk with Upton in person. Former Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter, who has the same agent and has known Upton since he was in high school, also put in a good word about his experience in Detroit and what to expect playing in the Motor City.
The Tigers' other advantage was structural. Upton, who turned down the Padres' qualifying offer at the start of the offseason, is tied to Draft-pick compensation, but Detroit has a protected first-round pick and already ceded its second-rounder to sign Jordan Zimmermann. That means the Tigers will only need to sacrifice a third-round pick to sign Upton and will get at least his age-28 and age-29 seasons in return. If Upton plays out the full six-year deal, he'd hit free agency again at age 34.
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The deal, worth a straight $22.125 million per season, will put the Tigers into luxury-tax territory for 2016, possibly beyond, depending on the future threshold under a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Detroit crossed the threshold in 2008 but will pay the first-time rate of 17.5 percent since it was under a previous CBA.
On the field, Upton's impact figures to be great for a team that had been projected to go into Spring Training with a mix of Tyler Collins and Anthony Gose in left. While Upton tilts the Tigers' lineup further right-handed, his career .805 OPS against right-handed pitching -- including .848 last year -- easily outpaces both. All but 10 of his 68 walks last year came against right-handed hurlers.
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Upton figures to slot into the middle of a batting order that already includes Miguel Cabrera and Martinez. Upton is a reliable presence, having played at least 149 games in each of the past five seasons, and is a serious power threat with five seasons of 25-plus home runs.
Upton joins a long line of January deals that helped build a contender in Detroit, following in the footsteps of Ivan Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, Jose Valverde, Johnny Damon and Prince Fielder. Only Fielder received a larger contract than Upton, whose contract ranks as the third-largest for a position player in franchise history behind Fielder and Miguel Cabrera.
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Having ripped 82 round-trippers across the past three seasons despite dealing with pitcher-friendly home parks in Atlanta and San Diego, Upton should have no problem topping the 25-homer mark at Comerica Park. Known as a streaky slugger with a propensity for whiffs, Upton is likely to have a neutral effect on a mixed-league team's batting average. Two factors will likely determine whether Upton is a second-tier or third-tier outfielder in 2016. First, he could likely compile counting stats at a greater rate if he is afforded a lineup spot adjacent to Cabrera. Second, Upton will need to get the green lights on the basepaths with enough regularity to exceed 15 swipes for the sixth time in eight seasons.