Detroit — The simple truth is Justin Upton was entering his final month as a Tiger, regardless.
As the Tigers shifted from contending to retooling to what now appears to be flat-out rebuilding, the chances of Upton waiving the opt-out clause in his contract after this season became more remote.
Upton hinted as much two weeks ago when he said, “I think all the veterans in here want to know what direction we’re going and what the future of the organization is. Al (Avila, general manager) has an open door and I’m sure guys will try to figure out what’s going on.”
Upton got the answer he was looking for. And once Avila surmised Upton would be opting out of his contract after the season, he had little choice but to act quickly and try to get something for him now before losing him for nothing in the offseason.
Thus, on Thursday, Upton was traded to the Los Angeles Angels for right-handed pitching prospect Grayson Long and a player to be named later.
The Tigers confirmed the trade at 4 p.m.
“He has been a consummate professional in his time here,” said Avila in a statement. “The Tigers and his family wish him the best moving forward.”
The Tigers are expected to pay a portion the remainder of Upton’s $22.1 million salary for this season ($1 million, as reported by Jon Heyman). The opt-out clause becomes the Angels concern now, as does the remaining four years and $88.5 million on his contract.
“I am going to miss Up, both on the field and in the clubhouse,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “He was a class act who carried himself with grace when he struggled and carried the offense when he swung the bat well, which he has done consistently all year.
“He’s a great player and teammate. I wish him nothing but the best.”
Upton is having arguably the most consistently productive season of his career. He’s hitting .279 with 28 home runs, 94 RBIs and a .904 OPS. Since the 2016 All-Star break, he has produced 51 home runs and 143 RBIs.
Here’s his production the last three months:
■ June: .305 batting average, .934 OPS, six home runs, 27 RBIs
■ July: .322 batting average, .956 OPS, two home runs, 15 RBIs
■ August: .275 batting average, .997 OPS, 11 home runs, 27 RBIs.
And that was after finishing last season with 13 home runs, 28 RBIs and a 1.132 OPS in the month of September.
Those numbers define the type of player he is, but his true character was defined during his immense struggles the first four months of last season. On Aug. 16, 2016, he was hitting .226 with just 13 home runs, 46 RBIs and a league-high 139 strikeouts. He was being booed at Comerica Park and ripped on local and national radio and television shows.
But he never lashed out. He never made excuses. He stood up, night after night, and answered questions and just continued to work.
Finally, in a 3-for-42 skid, Ausmus sat him down for three games. He told him to step away from the game and clear his head. When he came back he started hitting and producing, and he hasn’t stopped.
“As much as he struggled, with coming to a new club, a new city where winning is expected and with a new contract — he is one of the classiest guys I’ve been around in this game,” Ausmus said after last season. “He handled that with about as much class as you could.”
Asked about what those four months taught him, Upton just shrugged.
“Anything that knocks you down and you can get back up makes you better at what you do,” he said. “I think going through that process last year made me stronger.”
And now he joins an Angels team still very much in the fight for a wild card spot. He will more than likely bat behind Mike Trout. Upton’s 28 home runs this season is one more than all the Angels left fielders have produced combined since the start of 2015.
“What I’m excited about is being back into playoff contention and trying to help the Angels get to where they want to go,” Upton told the Associated Press. “I think I can be a piece that helps that.”
As for the Tigers, the move signals the club is fully embracing a rebuilding process. They were also still trying to work out a trade for Justin Verlander before midnight Thursday. Already, the Tigers have traded away J.D. Martinez, Justin Wilson, Alex Avila and now Upton.
If Verlander is moved, either now or in the offseason, they would have just three large guaranteed contracts left on the books for 2018 — Miguel Cabrera ($30 million), Jordan Zimmermann ($22.1 million) and Victor Martinez ($18 million).
They would also get under the luxury tax threshold for the first time in two years.
In return for Upton, the Tigers got a right-handed pitcher who projects as a back end of the rotation starter. Long, 23, was ranked as the eighth-best prospect in the Angels’ system by Baseball America.
He is 6-foot-5, 230 pounds and between High-A and Double-A this season posted an 8-8 record with a 2.69 ERA. He had 125 strikeouts, a 1.17 WHIP and a .232 batting average against.
“Grayson has been a standout player this season in the Southern League, which features some of the best prospects in baseball,” Avila said. “He is a workhorse-type starter who throws strikes and has a great makeup. Our scouts project him to be a starter at the Major-League level.”