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The Upton Question 

Hey, how did that elephant get into the room?

2015 is pretty close to becoming the mind-numbing disaster it appears to be headed toward.  It is time to deal with the question looming over everything the Padres do between now and opening day 2016.

Among the players still under team control after the last game of this season will be the team’s top 4 starters, nearly all of the bullpen and 7 of the 8 everyday players.  So, despite the fact that Justin Upton will inevitably file for free agency, the team will largely be intact.  Whether or not that is a good thing is another question entirely.

Among the contracts that will disappear: Joaquin Benoit ($8 mil), Ian Kennedy ($10 mil), Justin Upton ($14.5 mil), Will Venable ($4.25 mil), Brandon Morrow ($2.5 mil).  There are some others but the totals are less significant.

If you assume the Padres will buy-out Benoit’s option for $1.5 mil, the Padres will clear approximately $38 million from the roster without lifting a finger.  Some of that will be chewed up by arbitration cases and another portion will disappear with a reduced payout of Matt Kemp’s contract by the Dodgers.  But still, can we conservatively say the team will have anywhere from $20-$25 million of payroll relief in 2016?  Sure.

The question, of course, becomes whether that money is best spent on Justin Upton or not.  Which then begs the bigger question of whether to trade him now and get something in return or to hold on to him, give him a qualifying offer and accept the draft pick when he signs somewhere else, because I guarantee you, he will sign a long-term deal this offseason.  The trade him now argument is difficult to make without any idea of who will be offered in return.  Rather than sink into that rabbit hole, I’d like to focus on the contract Upton will sign this winter.

First, we need to know just how high the market will go.  It is nearly impossible to predict because we haven’t ever seen a player with Upton’s combination of MLB service, age and productivity hit the free agent market.  One player who came close to that combination, ironically, was Padre Dave Winfield who signed the richest contract in baseball history at the time.  Might Upton be next?

The top contract handed out to a position player last offseason was Hanley Ramirez at 4 years/$88 million.  If we use this as a baseline and compare him to Upton, it is easy to see why Upton will almost certainly command a much higher price tag.  Upton is 4 years younger, has a less intimidating injury history and has been a more consistent contributor over the past 5 seasons ( 16.2 vs 10.4 WAR ).

It is possible Upton could command $25 million per season, and at age 27 a team could offer him 8 years, making Upton the first $200 million position player.

Yes, the Padres COULD be the team that signs him to that contract.  SHOULD they?  Despite the fact we love watching him play and his power is not, apparently, diminished by Petco Park, we have to face the cold, harsh reality that it would just not be prudent to sign J-UP.

First, he’s not worth the contract he is inevitably going to get.  This is not really any indictment of Upton as a player.  He is very, very good.  But he is not elite, at least not according to any measurable metric.  Among MLB outfielders, Upton is currently 31st in OPS.  Among the players above him are Nori Aoki, Torii Hunter and (gasp)…. Cameron Maybin.  Also, while he makes the occasional great play (see McCutchen, Andrew) he is a career negative defender.

Put it another way.  Analysts have estimated it costs about 5 million dollars per win in the majors.  An average team with average players will win an average amount of games, and each game over that will cost, on average, $5 million dollars.  (i’ve read this figure as high as $7 million and lower in some articles but we’ll use $5 million for simplicity).  Justin Upton has averaged 3.3 WAR over the past 7 seasons.  Not to make it too black and white, but that really means he is worth $16.5 million, which is pretty close to what he is making now.  If you can get him at that price, by all means do so.

But you won’t.  Not even close.

Power is at a premium and teams are willing to overpay.  Emphasis on the over.  Why?  Because nothing is as valuable as power.

Therefore we can assume someone will give him more than the $16.5 he really is worth.  By the way, when that team does make that commitment, please remember that it doesn’t make the Padres cheap because they did not.

There is also the troubling reality of the rest of this roster.  This team, as its record indicates, has too many holes to think one player is the key that will unlock the postseason.  The Padres will need upgrades at shortstop (for sure) as well as 2 starting pitchers, a set-up man and some bench players.  That will all cost money, which the team will have if it fails to sign Upton and it will not if it doesn’t.

Also consider the team (and much of the farm system) is really, really right handed.  Grabbing  a veteran lefty would add value just by hitting on the opposite side of the plate.  Not to mention the potential defensive upgrade by moving Matt Kemp to left field and getting Will Myers out of center.

There are just too many arguments against signing Upton for me to climb onboard.  I’ll hate to see him go when he does, but sometimes the correct action is not the popular one.

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About the author: Richard Dorsha

The Padres above all others. There is nothing else in sports I want more than a Padres World Series title. My sports fandom begins and ends with the Friars. A San Diegan and Padre fan for more than 30 years now. Love to view the Padres from a historical context after reading about the team's humble beginnings to the dream come true of joining the National League. Been to more Padre games than I can count, seen more hours of Padre baseball than I care to mention.