Turn down $88 million?

I rarely check mainstream media baseball coverage anymore, but I think it’s a safe prediction that with the Yankees having an upcoming series with Detroit there will be multiple stories about Miguel Cabrera.  You know, “he used to be great, now he isn’t” – real in depth stuff that anyone with eyes can see.  In fact, if you try real hard, you can actually hear the voice of Simpleton Summer Camp’s Jack Curry explaining it to you as if he just found the cure for cancer.

In their defense, there aren’t too many interesting things about the Tigers to discuss, as they threw in the towel on the 2017 season a while back.  But I did come across a few interesting items of note, and found an interesting question for you to ponder…

Here’s a hypothetical situation for you:

  • You’re in the prime of your career and your value on an open market is worth $31 million annually.
  • You’re currently on a contract worth $22 million annually that you’re guaranteed to receive for another 4 years (that’s about 30% less than what you’re worth).
  • You have the option to void the contract at season’s end and offer your services to the open market.

Do you take the $88 million guaranteed, or do you become a free agent and (maybe) get an increase over that four year span – something closer to the $31 million annually you’re worth?

Good problem to have right?  Well that’s not a hypothetical situation for Justin Upton.

That’s Justin’s reality.

Put a pin in that, I’m going to come back to it…

Justin Upton was the first overall pick in the 2005 Major League Draft.  He was taken ahead of other notable players in the first round that year who are currently having impressive major league careers as well: Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki, Andrew McCutchen, Jay Bruce, and Jacoby Ellsbury (cough, ahem, cough…)

Upton was an above average player immediately upon playing full time. He debuted for Arizona at age 19 and by age 20 he was a regular. In 2009 at age 21 he was worth 4 Wins Above Replacement, and in 2011 he was worth 6.1 WAR adding an OPS+ of 141, finishing 4th in the MVP voting.  At his stops in Arizona, Atlanta, San Diego and Detroit he’s been either a better than average player, or a very good player – every single season – based on his WAR, OPS and OPS+.

But things really got interesting in January of 2016…

On January 18th, 2016, Upton signed his current agreement with Detroit: 6 years, $22 million annually, $132 million total.

Four days later, the Mets gave Yoenis Cespedes $25 million annually, which later became a $27.5 million annual deal through 2020 when he opted out of the original contract. The total commitment from the Mets to Cespedes will be $137 million over 5 years.

Short version, Cespedes received more money total, over a shorter period of time than Upton.  This is essentially due to Cespedes having a monster 8 weeks with the Mets at the end of 2015, being a huge contributor to a team that made it to the World Series.

Here’s the problem, as anyone with 5 minutes and a subscription to Baseball Reference could have told you back then (sorry Mets’ fans…):

Upton and Cespedes are essentially the same player.  Their WAR, OPS and OPS+ are almost identical since 2012 when Cespedes debuted as a 26 year old.

But when push comes to shove, I would call Upton a better player as he’s done it over a longer period of time and he was doing it on the Major League level at age 19 – Cespedes numbers aren’t negatively affected by inexperience as he was in his prime when he made his MLB debut.

However, if you prefer recency bias:

Since signing their current contracts, the Mets have received 4.3 WAR from Cespedes, the Tigers have received 6.7 from Upton.  The Mets will have paid Cespedes $50 million by this season’s end for those 4.3 wins, while the Tigers will have paid Upton $44 million for their 6.7 wins.

This is where I get on my pedestal and explain the lesson to be learned here if you’re a MLB General Manger (or even if you’re just a fan with a blog who cares):

You don’t give out contracts based on 8 weeks of work.

So now back to the question at hand:

You’re Justin Upton.  You’ve outperformed not only your contract, but a player with a slightly inferior resume who received a bigger contract.  Your agent can clearly demonstrate you signed on for under market two years ago, and that you’ve produced over that contract’s value.  Now you can be a free agent.  What do you do?

As a slight side note, I can’t imagine the Tigers would be interested in keeping him should he opt out.  They’re rebuilding and already owe two other players who are downsliding precipitously about a quarter of a billion (BILLION) dollars.  My guess is, even though a new contract with a raise for Upton would be worth it, it wouldn’t fit Detroit’s current plans.

That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t fit other teams plans though…

So if you’re Upton, do you keep the $88 million guaranteed to come your way, and hope Detroit can rebuild quickly (which they may – their pitching isn’t bad – what they do with Ian Kinsler will be interesting.  More on that below.)?  Or do you roll the dice and say another team with a better chance to win soon would be willing to give you more?

Again, good problem to have. But if it were me, I think that’s a pretty safe roll of the dice.  Justin Upton’s agent has a pretty easy sell to any team who thinks they can win in ’18 or ’19 and may need an outfielder.  Look for him to opt out get a contract similar to Cespedes’.

Other notes about the Tigers:

  • Jose Iglesias is the 2nd best defensive shortstop in baseball.  Bet you didn’t know that – I didn’t.
  • Detroit’s bullpen is no joke.  Shane Greene, Justin Wilson and Warwick Saupold are all having very good seasons, with Alex Wilson and Daniel Stumpf pitching pretty well, too.
  • Ian Kinsler is in the last guaranteed year of his contract.  There is a team option for ’18 at $10 million or a team buyout for $5 million.  This is an interesting decision for the Tigers – Kinsler has been a very good player for a long time.  Many, me included, have underrated him but he’s having one of his worst seasons as a pro.  $10 million would’ve been a bargain for him not too long ago, but if you’re rebuilding…? But even if you are rebuilding, would you keep him for $10 million and a have a player in a walk year rather than give him $5 million to go away?  Al Avila has some thinking to do…

As always, thanks to Fangraphs and Baseball Reference for the information.

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