What if I told you about a player who was a three-time MLB All-Star before he was 30 years old, would you take him? What if this same player averaged a 140 OPS+ in 6 seasons of his prime, yet struck out a ton each of those years, would you take him?
What if this same player’s main asset (power) was in such high demand at the time, the team that signed him had to overpay him in order to secure his talents for the forseeable future, would you take him? Finally, what if his defense, though still slightly below average, was, according to the advanced fielding statistics used today, not as bad as one might believe – would you take him?
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That player is Ryan Howard. From 2005-2010, Howard was one of the 5 best power hitters in the game. During those six season, his batting prowess was so good, the Phillies overpaid him in a fateful contract extension in order to make sure he stuck around.
Remember, offense in baseball was beginning its slow decline, and any semblance of power was bound to be rewarded. Whether or not Howard deserved that award has been debated many times. But the fact is, at the time of Howard’s signing, power was going to be in short supply, so the team acted.
That brings me to this week’s look at a free agent who could soon be on the Phillies radar, outfielder Justin Upton. Last week, I looked at Jason Heyward and what he might bring to the table. Could Upton bring a similar impact to the team?
First, as with Heyward, some background. Upton was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks with the first overall pick in the now famous 2005 amateur draft. Looking at the names selected after him, it seems quite amazing that he’d go first, but at the time, Upton was the no-doubt top prospect of the draft.
Upton then raced through the DBacks minor league system before making his debut in 2007. He wasn’t a full-time player until the following year, when in 2008 he hit to a .250/.353/.463 slash line, 15 home runs, and a 107 OPS+, all as a 20-year-old.
In 2009, he began to assert himself as a top offensive threat, hitting .300/.366/.532 with 26 home runs, making his first appearance in the All Star Game, and even garnering some down ballot MVP votes.
In the years since, Upton has continued to be an offensive force for his teams, hitting .275/.353/.473, with 121 home runs, posting a 124 OPS+, and even adding in a dash of speed, stealing 73 bases.
This season, his first and probably only in San Diego, his numbers are down slightly (.253/.331/.422 with 14 home runs), but some of that can be attributed to a rather odd platoon split where he is actually hitting better in Petco Park than he is on the road. However, he has already accumulated 3.0 bWAR, and seems well on his way to 4-5 bWAR season, making him a very valuable person entering the offseason.
So, what would the Phillies be getting in Upton, were they to add him to the roster?
Upton is a right-handed power hitter, something the Phillies don’t really have in the system now. Maikel Franco would be the only person who is seen as a threat from the north side, so adding in such a bat to the lineup would be a huge boon to the offense.
He has averaged a .201 ISO since becoming a regular in 2008. His lowest ISO number in his career is .150, coming in 2012. Putting that in perspective, his lowest ISO total would be sixth on the current Phillies roster (fifth, if you throw out Chad Billingsley). He’s never hit fewer than 15 home runs in the majors, and that was his rookie season. Plain and simple, Upton is not getting the bat knocked out of his hand.
In the red part of his career ledger, they would also be getting a player that strikes out – a lot. Since 2010, Upton has averaged 146 strikeouts per 162 games. While it looked as though he was getting better at this in 2011, when he cut his K% from 26.6% to 18.3%, he has seen a steady rise in his strikeout rate since.
However, with that high strike out rate comes an above average walk rate. For his career, Upton is walking 10.2% of time, above the National League average. So, based on this information, one might think that Upton is a TTO-type guy (Three True Outcomes), but he is more than that.
When I started looking at Upton more closely, one of the things that surprised the most was his ability on the base paths. I mentioned earlier his 73 stolen bases from 2010-2014, but if you add in the 20 he stole in 2009, that’s 93 over a 6 year period, a little more than 15 on average. This season’s 17 stolen bases thus far show that it is no fluke either.
Upton’s 75% success rate on stolen base attempts during this time also means that he isn’t costing his team by running too much and getting caught. In 2015, he’s even gotten better at running the bases too, accounting for 3.8 BRR (Baserunning Runs), which would be his highest total yet. In other words, he’s an asset once he starts running the bases.
Defensively, Upton is an asset in that aspect of the game as well. Since becoming a regular in 2009, he has only been in the negative for DRS once. That was in 2013, his first season with the Braves, who moved him on account of Jason Heyward. Baseball Prospectus also has a positive view of his defense, only crediting him with negative FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average) once in 2014.
Put it all together, and it makes for a very interesting case for the Phillies. On one hand, the team would be acquiring a player who will not turn 30 until 2017, one that would instantly add offensive and defensive value to a team in desperate need of it.
I referenced Ryan Howard at the beginning of this piece because, to the outsider, he might be the first name that ranks as a comparable player to Upton because of the similar power profile. That might be enough to scare off fans from wanting the team to invest too heavily in a player like that.
However, as I’ve shown, Howard makes for a bad comp because Upton does so many other things well that Howard never did. Howard, though he wasn’t as bad as you might remember, has become so bad defensively, it’s almost painful to watch him put on the glove. On the bases, it’s not even a discussion.
Of course, with the profile Upton possesses, power is his main calling card, and power is in short supply in Major League Baseball these days. That means his talents will probably be in high demand this year. Last year saw the fewest number of players hitting 20 or more home runs (57) since 1979, when there were only 58 players hitting that many.
Offense is going down, which means the salaries of those who can create offense themselves goes up. If the Phillies were to sign Upton, based on his age and ability, I think an 8 year/$210 million contract would have to be the starting point. It sounds high, and it is. However, players like him just aren’t available much anymore.
Next up in this series is a guy who would represent a significant upgrade at a position where the team’s best prospects are years away: Matt Wieters.