Justin Upton has found a home, and the Angels have found a left fielder.
The two parties have taken long and winding roads to each other, with Upton making stops in Arizona, Atlanta, San Diego and Detroit, and the Angels experimenting over the last decade with everyone from Josh Hamilton to Daniel Nava.
“I guess I opted in,” Upton joked Friday before a 2-1 victory over the Athletics at the Oakland Coliseum.
Upton was recounting the decision he made over the winter to extend his contract with the Angels rather than void the remaining four years on his deal to explore the free-agent market.
If the other players on the roster made the four-time All-Star feel this was the right place for him, it was general manager Billy Eppler who made him think that.
“He’s got a vision for the organization,” said Upton, who finished last season with 35 home runs and 109 RBIs.
Eppler made it a point to communicate that vision with him before he could re-enter the free-agent market. The general manager and outfielder went out for dinner in Anaheim in early October. They spoke again later in the month over breakfast in Arizona.
“He had a decision to make and with any player that we talk to, we want them to understand what we’re trying to accomplish here,” Eppler said. “One, what we’re looking at doing, as far as the club and personnel and investing in the team and so on and so forth, but also just our processes and our methodologies and our way of going about our business, whether that’s something from how we prepare our players, how we train our players, how we coach our players, how we manage the workloads of our players, I want everybody to always understand those things.”
Upton bought into the Angels, and the Angels bought into him, replacing the four years and $88.5million remaining on his deal with a five-year, $106-million contract.
Five teams and 12 seasons into his career, Upton has finally found a place to call home.
Eppler’s words solidified the agreement. Upton could see how Eppler was reconstructing a roster that was once weighed down by the contracts of Hamilton and C.J. Wilson. He wanted to hear the thinking behind it. He had to.
Upton broke into the major leagues as a 19-year-old with the Diamondbacks and played in the National League Championship Series that season. He never reached that point again.
“It sucks,” Upton said. “Every year, you want to be the last team standing. Every year, you fight and try to get there and when you come up short, you’re not happy about it.”
That maiden October experience remains a reference point for Upton.
“Some guys never get that experience,” he said. “Get that early, get that taste early, it gives you something to shoot for.”
Eppler liked that.
“I think that’s also why Ian Kinsler waived his no-trade to come over here and why Zack Cozart wanted to sign here,” Eppler said.
Upton also complemented the clubhouse culture the Angels were trying to create.
“He fit in really well when he came here,” Eppler said. “He’s really professional, a serious player. Just a guy that understands his job, wants to be great at his job, very focused on his preparation. So he fit well with what we gravitate to. He’s also a middle-of-the-order bat.”
Upton misplayed a couple of balls in left field in the first two games of this season, but has offered an early reminder of what he can mean as the No. 3 hitter in the lineup, particularly with Mike Trout batting before him.
With Trout on first base in the ninth inning Friday, Upton lined a ball off Emilio Pagan to left field, where it handcuffed Matt Joyce. As the ball dribbled to the wall, Trout scored to double the Angels’ lead to 2-0.
When Eppler acquired Upton in a trade with the Tigers on Aug. 31 of last year, he did so without any guarantees that Upton would be anything more than a one-month rental.
However, Eppler was hopeful he could re-sign Upton to an extension. As a free agent in the winter of 2015-16, Upton reached out to the Angels before he signed with the Tigers.
“Our circumstances at that time weren’t going to allow us to do that,” Eppler said. “We couldn’t make it fit. We appreciated his interest and we told him we’d have interest if our circumstances were a little different.”
Two winters later, the Angels’ circumstances were different.
The Angels got their player. Upton got his team.