Detroit — They headed off into the great unknown Sunday night, on a flight bound for New York with a team dressed in suspense.
There was Justin Wilson, the Tigers’ closer, rhetorically checking his itinerary. (“As far as I know right now, I'm on the flight,” he said.) And there was Justin Verlander, tipping his cap this time as the left the field at Comerica Park, just in case. ("You never know,” he shrugged.)
Even manager Brad Ausmus acknowledged the elephant packing its bags in the clubhouse. Earlier Sunday, with the trade deadline looming, he’d expressed confidence none of his players were getting dealt before the day was done. But after the clock struck midnight?
“I’ll be honest with you,” Ausmus said. “I don’t know.”
Quite frankly, that is the unfortunate reality for these Tigers, besieged by questions with no simple answers and facing a future that offers no easy way out. And as Justin Upton stood in front of his locker late Sunday afternoon, the Tigers’ All-Star left fielder — the quiet guy with the loud bat — was asked about that.
Well, first, Upton was asked about his stellar day at the plate, a 4-for-5 showing that included his sixth career grand slam and six RBIs.
“Hitting a home run in the big leagues is always fun,” he said. “But when the bases are loaded, it’s even more fun.”
But all this losing, it hasn’t been much fun for anyone. And as general manager Al Avila surveys his options ahead of Monday’s 4 p.m. non-waiver deadline, Upton addressed his own Sunday.
Rethink his stance
His contract — the six-year, $132 million free-agent deal signed in January 2016 — has a built-in escape clause at the end of this season. And while the idea of Upton opting out of his deal with four years and $88.5 million left seemed like a long shot back in spring training, it’s at least plausible now. And something he admitted Sunday he’ll have to consider given the Tigers’ changing outlook.
“I came here to win,” he said. “So I’d have to see what the landscape is like at the end of (this season.) I enjoy playing here. I enjoy the guys in the clubhouse. I enjoy the atmosphere, the city. So that decision is long down the road, months away.”
A year ago at this time, Upton was still mired in a slump, hitting .237 with a .688 OPS and 12 home runs. But then he finally caught fire down the stretch, with 18 home runs in his final 38 games as the Tigers narrowly missed a wild-card berth. And now over his last 162 games — a stretch that still includes the final month of last year’s extended funk — Upton’s hitting .272 with 38 homers, 115 RBIs an .898 OPS.
In short, he’s holding up his end of the deal, playing hard and playing well, providing a consistent threat for the Tigers even as veterans like Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Ian Kinsler have struggled. As catcher James McCann put it Sunday, “He has been the guy that has held our lineup together.” Or tried to, at least. And at age 29 — Upton turns 30 next month — it’s not inconceivable he could opt out and land another free-agent contract that matches what the Tigers owe him on his current deal.
The player he replaced in Detroit, Yoenis Cespedes, opted out of his contract last winter and re-signed with the Mets for four years and $110 million. Upton’s not Cespedes, but he is a year younger and the free-agent class of outfielders this winter looks pretty thin beyond J.D. Martinez and Lorenzo Cain.
Upton, for his part, insists he’s not thinking about that right now. Yet amid all this talk of the Tigers’ bloated payroll and ownership’s desire to get “leaner,” he knows he’ll have to this fall. After all, as he said, there’s a reason Upton and his agent gave themselves — and the Tigers, for that matter — this out. Both parties knew this win-at-all-costs pursuit of a World Series title wouldn’t last much longer.
Shuffling the deck
“It’s something that I have, it’s something that’s in my favor,” he said. “That conversation will be had when it needs to be had. But right now … you know, I’m a Detroit Tiger, until I’m not.”
But who is and who isn’t a year from now is very much in doubt. Wilson was expected to be dealt before the deadline. Verlander could be gone this winter, if not today. Same with Kinsler, another veteran on the trading block whose final contract year of $10 million could be bought out for half that if the Tigers choose.
Kinsler and Upton have become close friends the last 18 months, and so have their families. On the players’ off day Thursday, they took their kids to the Detroit Zoo. But Upton laughed when asked if the thought of friends getting shipped out worried him.
“Does it worry me? No, we’re grown men,” he said. “We’ve got four or five months off in the offseason — we’ll get together. I mean, we’ll get to hang out. That’s not something you can be worried about when you’re playing baseball. Because if it is, you’ll be worried a lot.”
Then again, what’s left could be a major rebuilding project, and for a 10-year vet still chasing a World Series, that could be a significant factor. And while it’s not something he says he and Kinsler spend much time talking about.
“You do want to win,” Upton said. “And you don’t know what Al’s plans are for the organization, so you can’t live in the future or predict what’s gonna happen.”
But the future isn’t far off, and given all the uncertainty presently surrounding the Tigers, at least he knows he'll have options.