Justin Upton was the first pick in the 2005 draft, reached the majors at 19, hit .300 with 26 home runs at 21 and finished fourth in the MVP voting in 2011 at 23.
Despite the early promise that he'd be a perennial All-Star, the Arizona Diamondbacks traded Upton to the Atlanta Braves after the 2012 season under the belief that then-general manager Kevin Towers didn't view Upton as a "winning player."
The trade (which brought the Diamondbacks Martin Prado and Nick Ahmed) was much-panned, but Towers was right in one regard: Upton hasn't gotten better from that 2011 peak season. His year-by-year WAR totals since 2011: 6.1, 2.5, 2.9, 3.2, 4.4. Traded to the San Diego Padres in 2015, he hit .251/.336/.454 with 26 home runs and hits free agency at age 28.
Like Jason Heyward, Upton is viewed through some lenses as a disappointment. But if you focus on what he is instead of what the expectations once were, he's still a good player with power who draws some walks, can run a little, plays an adequate corner outfield and has been durable. He's young enough that a long-term contract shouldn't become a burden at the back end. That said, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs views Upton as a potential free agent land mine, writing "Upton just hasn't been a star player since 2011, the one year he did manage to hit 31 homers. A seven-year deal with at least a $20 million AAV is a bet on Upton turning back into that kind of hitter for at least a little while, and it's likely that someone will pay for that perceived upside."
I can see that. Upton isn't all that fast, and it wouldn't surprise me if his speed goes in a year or two, which would wipe out much of his sort-of-average defensive value. Still, as Cameron pointed out, considering Shin-Soo Choo got seven years and $130 million two years ago from the Rangers, Upton should command a $140 million deal or so.
Here are five possible destinations:
The White Sox's offense was a disaster in 2015. Despite playing in a good home run park, they ranked last in the American League in runs and last in home runs. Their corner outfielders ranked 23rd in the majors in wOBA, and while they'll hope for a better season from Melky Cabrera, Upton would be a major upgrade over Avisail Garcia in right field. There should be room in the budget, especially when factoring in that John Danks ($15.75 million) and Adam LaRoche ($13 million) come off the payroll after 2016. The White Sox, however, also have holes in the infield that need addressing. The White Sox never punt on a season like other clubs, so we can count on them doing something.
Orioles left fielders ranked 27th in the majors in wOBA; their right fielders ranked 24th. The Orioles ran a $118 million payroll last year and are sitting at about $100 million right now. The club's preference is to bring back Chris Davis and then troll around for a second-tier outfielder, hoping to get lucky late in free agency the way they did a couple years ago with Nelson Cruz. But if Davis signs elsewhere, that opens up the possibility of signing Upton. We know the Orioles emphasize power, and maybe Upton has a Cruz-like surge in the cozy confines of Camden Yards.
While pitching is their offseason priority, the Giants also have stretched the Angel Pagan-Gregor Blanco outfield about as far as they can. Pagan has one more year left on his contract, but his defensive metrics in center field were terrible in 2015 and he hit just .262/.303/.332, suggesting a move to left field -- or the bench -- is in order, with Blanco taking over center-field duties. One caveat: Upton hasn't hit well at AT&T Park in his career with a .233 average and three home runs in 210 at-bats.
The Indians got burned a couple years ago with the Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher signings, and considering their attendance issues (29th in the majors in 2015), they aren't expected to be a player in the free-agent market. But consider: (1) They're looking for offense, especially in the outfield, where Michael Brantley will now miss the start of the season and Lonnie Chisenhall, while making a strong defensive transition from third base, still offers little at the plate; (2) The past three seasons, the Indians' payroll has been in the $80-to-$90-million range and Baseball-Reference.com projects their payroll at about $65 million; (3) Upton is younger than Bourn and Swisher were a few years ago.
Look, the Indians don't have a single player on the roster making $10 million in 2016 or 2017. The team underperformed its base statistics in 2015 more than any other team, so they're a good bet to improve as is. Why trade one of their starting pitchers if there's room in the budget for a big free agent?
We've been down this road before: Angels left fielders were the worst in the majors, so Upton is a possibility for a big-payroll franchise looking to contend in 2016. A left-handed bat is a better fit, which is why I think Heyward would be a more likely choice for the Angels. However, Upton would be less expensive and could provide solid power hitting behind Mike Trout.
Upton's ultimate destination is a wild card. The Cardinals need power, but Upton doesn't seem like a Cardinals type of player. The Royals need an outfielder, especially depending on what happens with Alex Gordon, but Upton is probably out of their price range. The Mariners need an outfielder, but they own the 11th pick in the draft, which they would lose if they signed Upton. And while Upton has spent his entire career in the National League, most of the NL contenders are already set in right field. This could end up being one of the more surprising signings of the winter.