Henning: Tigers unwilling to gamble with Upton's opt-out

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Justin Upton is due $88.5 million over the next four years.

Justin Upton and his agent, Larry Reynolds, have raised their periscope and seen in the distance something that convinces them Upton is worth more than the $88.5 million contractually guaranteed and stretched across the next four big-league seasons.

That realization, and only that realization, is why the Tigers on Thursday mailed their talented left fielder to the Angels in a deal that got the Tigers nothing more than a Double A pitcher who looks as if he might — might — offer later rotation help.

Not a huge prize there, especially after the Tigers — who were led by late owner Mike Ilitch to sign Upton — coughed up a desperately needed, early-round draft pick in 2016 as their penalty for signing Upton.

Thursday’s trade-bomb was startling only in the sense Upton has been signaling, mostly with non-denials, that he truly is bent on giving the free-agent auction house another crack this offseason, even if it means waving off his $88.5-million, bird-in-hand.

And so the Tigers acted Thursday in the same manner they decided a month ago to deal J.D. Martinez, who was headed for free agency and whose potential draft-day compensation was so paltry the Tigers moved him for three Diamondbacks prospects.

Thursday’s swap was based on the same rationale. The Tigers weren’t interested in sending Upton and his probable 30-plus homers into the free-agent shopping aisles minus something tangible they could take home.

So, the Angels, who found themselves on Aug. 31 in the most surprising of 2017 scenarios, competing for a wild card spot, decided Upton would be worth renting — of that his $88.5 million would be worth absorbing — when the price was no steeper than one Grayson Long, a 2015 third-round pick by the Angels who pitched at Texas A&M and who now will be housed in the Tigers’ farm chain.

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The Tigers weren’t necessarily finished Thursday. Ahead of a midnight deadline for teams adding players eligible for October playoffs, Tigers general manager Al Avila was open to overtures for Justin Verlander. Or, for that matter, anyone who had passed through the subterranean waiver wire without having been claimed by another team.

Upton's case

The Upton situation caught the Tigers by surprise, absolutely. They figured along with everyone else in baseball that Upton had cashed in wonderfully ahead of a market chill-down and that he would remain Detroit property, like it or not, probably through the 2021 season.

But it was always fascinating to hear Upton talk about a clause in his six-year deal with the Tigers. He never treated it as dubious, never waved at it dismissively, never backed away from making clear to inquiring minds that he would give the opt-out full consideration at season’s end.

He also was making doubly sure he had a case for free-agent gold.

That, it seems, as well as his deep professional pride, might well have motivated Upton to not only put together another splendid year at the plate. It had to have been part of his 2017 turnaround on defense.

A few days after turning 30, he ranks as a marvelous two-way player. And should the market thaw this autumn and free-agent bidding resume in the manner of earlier years — plausible, given baseball’s rising revenues — Upton and Reynolds could well have wagered shrewdly.

With brilliant foresight, they will have gambled that an outfielder with Upton’s right-handed thunder and overall skills will lure another of those mega-contracts that for so long were vogue and that, inevitably it seemed, were destined to return.

The Tigers, whose payroll problems are by the day and trade becoming history, can now focus on certain pressing issues, such as: Who’s going to play the outfield in 2018?

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Martinez is gone from right. Upton no longer is patrolling left. The fill-ins, at this point, are some combination of Mikie Mahtook in center, Alex Presley, Andrew Romine, or (all Mud Hens candidates report to Comerica Park, please) Jim Adduci and Tyler Collins.

Mike Gerber at Double-A Erie, along with power-hitting Christin Stewart, are somewhere on the timeline. But no one expects them to be ready by Opening Day 2018.

Ongoing process

It is anticipated, of course, that Avila is only about halfway through a long list of trade chores he’s been trying for the past year to attack.

The trades have been premised not so much on skinning back payroll, which was in the process of happening naturally. Rather, deals have been understood as the only way in which the Tigers could replant their farm system and bring younger guns to Comerica Park who might forge, at some point down the road, something approaching playoff legitimacy.

The push continues.

If they aren’t able by midnight Thursday to deal Verlander, they’ll try again next July to find a happy new home for their ace, who deserves to pitch in the playoffs and who merits a nice return for the Tigers.

They’ll need, in this view anyway, to deal Michael Fulmer. Fulmer could draw the heavy prospects haul Avila absolutely must add to the mix if the Tigers are to be anything but punching bags in coming years for the Indians, White Sox, Twins, Royals, and others.

This has been the plan for more than a year. But teams weren’t interested in the Tigers’ inventory. Too old. Too expensive. Too lacking in dimension. Too ill of a fit for clubs that finally began to appreciate the value, and economy, of young talent and prized prospects.

Upton hasn’t necessarily helped there. But that’s a market consequence and represents no failing on his part.

He was a genuinely fun guy to watch. Such an explosive hitter, with excellent pitch-judgment, a package now complemented by his better artwork in left field.

He also was a good guy to be around. Upton genuinely is a nice man. He handled himself beautifully in Detroit, never more than when he pressured himself to perform a year ago and endured those hideous initial four months, all before the lifeblood again began to flow and he got back to being Justin Upton.

So, good luck to him with the Angels and beyond. And good luck to the Tigers, who have a baseball team to revamp.

Upton, at least for the next few years, figures to be the bigger winner.

Twitter: @Lynn_Henning