The Los Angeles Angels Needed Justin Upton to Stick Around
On the fringes of the American League wild card race, the Los Angeles Angels decided to make a late push by trading forfor outfielder Justin Upton prior to the August 31st waiver trade deadline this past year. They acquired the slugger in the second year of a long-term deal, but Upton had a decision to make following the World Series thanks to an opt-out clause.
While Los Angeles didn't make the postseason -- they finished 80-82 -- they wanted to keep him around for the foreseeable future. Instead of using that opt-out clause, the Angels tacked on another season to the four years and $88 million he had remaining on his current deal to make it a five-year, $106 million pact.
A Worthy Contract
After signing a six-year, $132.75 million deal with the Detroit Tigers prior to the 2016 season, the young outfielder struggled to a .246/.310/.465 triple slash, which was good for just a 104 wRC+ and 1.3 fWAR.
While there is no doubt that he disappointed in the first year of a big contract, he bounced back in a major way in 2017. The below table shows his performance from last season, split by team.
It didn't matter which jersey he was wearing -- Upton was incredibly consistent and put together a truly stellar campaign that was one of the best he's produced as a big leaguer.
His 137 wRC+ is the second-highest number he's ever posted in that department, as is his 5.0 fWAR. It may not be fair to expect another five-win season from Upton moving forward, but it's not crazy to expect production better than his 2016 performance because he's been better than that his entire career.
He's slashed .269/.348/.479 with a 121 wRC+ over 6,189 career plate appearances, giving us quite a large sample to conclude that Upton is indeed a well above-average offensive player. After all, that 121 wRC+ ranks 28th among all outfielders since 2007, which is the year in which he made his debut.
Finally Gaining Some Depth
Any team getting an above-average bat in their lineup is a positive, but it's especially notable for the Angels since it gives their offense some depth with Mike Trout already anchoring it. Despite having one of baseball's premier talents, Los Angeles has struggled to be consistently competitive since he took on an every-day role in 2012.
They've made the playoffs just once (in 2014) and were promptly swept by the Kansas City Royals. The organization has posted a 444-468 record since 2012, and that is with a 98-win season in 2014. They've finished at least 18 games off the pace in the American League West in 2013, 2016, and 2017, so they've struggled to even sniff the playoffs.
Trout's incredible production has elevated the Angels to being an average team, but there hasn't been the depth behind him that's necessary to give them a shot at getting to the next level. Over the last three seasons, the highest wRC+ an Angels player not named Trout has posted is 117, which was done by C.J. Cron in 2016. Meanwhile, Upton has failed to post a 117 wRC+ just four times in his career, and just once since 2013.
It's rather clear that Upton is L.A.'s second-best bat, finally pairing Trout with another legitimate threat in the middle of their order. With Trout signed through the 2020 season, his impending free agency is coming quicker than we realize. The Angels need to make a legitimate effort to put a team around their best player and make a playoff run. Keeping Upton in town accomplishes just that.