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McCosky: Why the Tigers chose Upton over Cespedes

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Justin Upton

Detroit – While we are waiting for the Tigers and Justin Upton to complete the process on a six-year, $132.75 million deal – the medical examination is scheduled for Wednesday morning – let’s sort some things out.

Why Upton over Yoenis Cespedes?

The easy answer is that Upton (28) is two years younger than Cespedes (30) and, in the eyes of the Tigers’ baseball operations (both scouts and analytics), a better all-around player.

Both have career batting averages of .271, but Upton’s on-base percentage (.352-.319) and OPS (.825-.805) are higher. Also, Upton walks more and strikes out less (2.34 strikeouts to walks compared to 3.43 for Cespedes).

Upton is also, statistically, the better baserunner (plus-19 by Bill James’ formula last year, to plus-15 for Cespedes) and both are considered above-average fielders, though Cespedes’ powerful arm gives him an edge.

Upton, throughout his career, has typically been on teams where he was one of the few, if not the only, offensive threat. Especially during his later years in Atlanta and in San Diego, he wasn’t afforded much protection in the lineup.

That shouldn’t be the case in Detroit with Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez. There is a sense that Upton will thrive in this environment more than Cespedes did last year. In 101 games with the Tigers – albeit with injuries to Cabrera and Victor Martinez – Cespedes hit 18 home runs and knocked in 61 runs. In 57 games with the Mets, he hit 17 homers with 44 RBIs.

Upton, like Cespedes, is considered a streaky player, but his production belies that. In the last seven seasons, he’s averaged 30 doubles, 25 homers and 16 stolen bases. Other than Mike Trout, Upton is the only player in baseball to average 25 homers, 25 doubles and 74 runs since 2013.

All of that is enough to push the needle toward Upton. But there is more.

Teams, not just the Tigers, seem wary of giving Cespedes a long-term deal. Fair or not, he is perceived to have some diva qualities and some question whether he would bring the same work ethic he’s shown in contract years once he got some security.

He wasn’t a problem in Detroit. He was a popular guy in the clubhouse and by all accounts, he enjoyed his time as a Tiger. So, this isn’t meant to be after-the-fact shot at Cespedes. But, when you are handing out six-year, $132 million deals, you need to get it right. And when owner Mike Ilitch gave the green light to adding another major contract, the Tigers deemed Upton the safer investment.

Hard to disagree.

Yoenis Cespedes

What’s the long-term cost of this deal?

It may not be as problematic as you’d think.

Upton will make $22.125 million in each of the six years of the deal. There is no deferred salary. By the time the Tigers settle with J.D. Martinez and fill out the roster, the payroll for 2016 will be in excess of $200 million, maybe as high as $210 million.

The Tigers will pay 17.5 percent on any salary over $189 million. So, Ilitch will be writing another hefty check.

And, the Tigers will have $164.4 million already committed (with 11 players) for 2017.

But here’s what the Tigers already know. The current collective bargaining agreement expires on Dec. 1. There will be a new one in place (barring a work stoppage) for 2017 and the Tigers are banking on the luxury tax threshold to increase, perhaps up to $200 million.

So even though the Tigers have spent more this offseason ($272 million) than any other team besides the Cubs, they weren’t by any means reckless or shortsighted.

Did the Tigers really consider signing Chris Davis?

Well, Ilitch apparently liked him, but the Tigers never made a formal offer.

What Davis would have offered was protection in case designated hitter Victor Martinez, 37 and coming off an injury-plagued season, doesn’t bounce back.

There was some thought about Davis playing left field. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed.

Maybe he could play left field at Fenway Park, but not in spacious Comerica. It would have been as bad as when Delmon Young tried to play left field at Comerica.

General manager Al Avila was able to persuade Ilitch the money would be better spent on Upton and Davis eventually signed back with the Orioles for $160 million.

Tyler Collins

What happens now with Tyler Collins and Mike Aviles?

Looking at it logically, the Tigers probably need a second utility infielder (Aviles) more than they would a fifth outfielder (Collins), but it may not be that cut-and-dried.

As presently constructed, the Tigers are heavy on right-handed hitters. In fact, assuming Cameron Maybin in the everyday center fielder, Victor Martinez will be the only lefty in the lineup most nights.

Collins is a left-handed bat with some power. Anthony Gose, Andrew Romine and Jarrod Saltalamacchia would be the only left-handed hitters on the bench.

So, there would be some obvious value in keeping Collins.

But know this: The Tigers aren’t fretting one bit about having an imbalanced lineup. Upton, Cabrera, and J.D. Martinez all hit right-handers better than left-handers last season. There are very few, if any, right-handed specialist pitchers in baseball. It would be worse if the Tigers were overly-stocked with left-handed hitters.

Are the Tigers now a legitimate World Series contender?

Yes. On paper, the back end of the bullpen is as strong as it’s been in years with the additions of Mark Lowe, Justin Wilson and Francisco Rodriguez. Jordan Zimmermann and a healthy Anibal Sanchez should bolster the top of the rotation.

And Upton fills the final hole in the offense.

But this boat is going to sink or swim based on the health and production of three players – Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Justin Verlander. In that way, it's the same as it ever was.