If before the season you said, “Melvin Upton will be a big name traded at the deadline,” nobody would have believed you. Upton was given away to the Padres in what looked more like a “put him out to the pastures” move than a “give him a chance for a career reversal and power resurgence in Petco” move. (I love thinking about San Diego as a pasture that fading or aging players get sent to. If that makes any Padres fans mad you can tweet your displeasure at me.)
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) July 26, 2016
But career reversal is what happened, miraculously, and Padres GM A.J. Preller lucked into a trade chip. After three years of dwindling power and speed, Upton has smashed 16 homers and stolen 20 bases through just 92 games. That makes him one of baseball’s few 20/20 candidates, which, paired with his defensive prowess and versatility, makes him a borderline borderline star. After a hot start at the plate, his wRC+ has regressed 100 (league average). If he can maintain league average offensive production is a big question, but his ability to play all three outfield positions well and the extra year of team control make that less of a pressing question.
In some ways – not in every way, don’t panic – this deal reminds me of the infamous Vernon Wells trade. Both were traded at age 31 after short bouncebacks turned them from rapidly declining stars with bloated contracts into intriguing trade chips. The big difference, of course, is that the Jays aren’t going to take on over $80 million in salary to acquire Upton. Depending on who the Class-A prospect heading to San Diego is, the Padres will likely pay the majority or at least a good chunk of the remaining ~$30 million left on Upton’s contract. Furthermore, Upton’s diverse skill-set is a hedge against him being completely useless in the foreseeable future, but a significant offensive collapse mirroring Wells’ is a real possibility.
The most concerning thing about Upton is the strikeout to walk ratio. The Jays know what they’re getting into I’m sure, but Upton’s “resurgence” has been accompanied by a severe deterioration in his plate discipline. With Upton likely displacing Smoak from the starting lineup as Bautista moves to DH and Edwin sees more starts at 1B, he immediately becomes the team leader in K% among starters. On an even sadder note, Upton may spell the end of Ezequiel Carrera, who is out of options and would likely be claimed if sent down.
Upton’s career-low 6.3 BB% would be slightly better than Devon Travis‘ and Kevin Pillar‘s, but still atrocious. Digging into his plate discipline states, the reason for the worse BB/K ratio is simple: he’s swinging at way more pitches out of the zone and way fewer pitches in the zone. Interestingly, he’s managed to avoid a massive drop in his contact rate despite swinging at bad pitches because he’s actually making contact with those bad pitches.
He’s not quite back to his abysmal 2013-2014 levels, but after showing positive signs in 2015, Upton looks like he’s fallen back into bad habits. Particularly worrying is the 10% rise in his O-Contact% and the 5% drop in Z-Contact%.
So there’s one red flag. The second is that while his fly ball rate of 35% is pretty much in line with what he’s done over the past four years, his HR/FB rate has almost doubled. Part of that is due to a career-low 6% infield fly ball rate (he had a 20 IFFB% in 2015, and his career average is 10%). Part of that is definitely due to luck. While moving to from Petco to the Rogers Centre will help soften the power regression, it’s definitely coming.
One positive sign is that Upton is hitting to all fields more than he has in a long, long time. He’s run a Pull% above 40% since 2009, but this year he’s only pulling 33% of his hits while going to center field 37% of the time and to the opposite field 30% of the time. The Jays will hope he can sustain that approach and avoid being yet another pull-heavy right handed bat that gets shifted to heck (i.e. everyone in Toronto’s lineup except for Michael Saunders and maybe Devon Travis).
The details of the trade are still shaking out. Whoever the prospect is, it’ll be the salary balance that tips the scales on this deal. As it stands now, this looks like a win-win for both sides, but if Toronto’s definition of a “win” is anything more than adding defensive value, versatility, and team control, then they should prepare to be sorely disappointed.