Takeaways from Angels designating outfielder Justin Upton for assignment
The timing seemed a bit odd, but the actual move did not. Left fielder Justin Upton was designated for assignment by the Angels on Saturday, marking the second consecutive year the team has jettisoned an aging veteran with a massive contract to clear a spot for younger players.
Upton, 34, will make $28 million in the final season of the five-year, $106-million contract extension he signed before 2018. The Angels will have seven days to trade Upton or release him. The team acquiring or signing him will have to pay only $700,000 of his salary, with the Angels responsible for the rest.
Four takeaways from the move:
Upton hit the ball hard this spring, batting .333 (five for 15) with three homers and 11 RBIs in seven games, and was working out at first base as a possible right-handed-hitting option to Jared Walsh, who has struggled against left-handers.
Since the Angels are paying him, wouldn’t it have made sense to play Upton for a week or two of the regular season to see if he produced?
Shohei Ohtani and many in the Angels organization believe the two-way sensation can improve on his historic 2021 season.
Perhaps, but Upton was coming off three injury-marred seasons in which he hit .211 with a .713 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 38 homers and 103 RBIs in 194 games, and he is a subpar defender in left field.
The Angels didn’t put much stock in Upton’s spring stats, and it was only a matter of time before he was replaced by top prospects Brandon Marsh or Jo Adell.
“Looking at the construction of our club,” Angels general manager Perry Minasian told reporters in Arizona, “we think Brandon and Jo are ready to go.”
Angels in the outfield
Minasian said Marsh, Adell and Taylor Ward will all get “significant playing time” flanking center fielder Mike Trout. The guess here is that Marsh, a left-handed batter, will platoon with the right-handed-hitting Ward in left, and Adell will get the bulk of the early starts in right field.
The slick-fielding Marsh, 24, showed promise at the plate in his final 46 games of 2021, hitting .297 with a .761 OPS, two homers and 17 RBIs. Ward, 28, a converted catcher/third baseman, hit .250 with a .769 OPS, eight homers and 33 RBIs in 65 games last season and is solid defensively in both corners.
Adell, 21, struggled after his promotion in early August last season, batting .194 with a .549 OPS, one homer and 12 RBIs in his first 18 games. But he finished with a flourish, batting .302 with an .867 OPS, three homers and 14 RBIs in his last 17 games, and he has made significant strides defensively in right.
Saturday’s move was reminiscent of one the Angels made last May, when veteran first basemen Albert Pujols was designated for assignment one month into the final season of a 10-year, $240-million deal that paid him $30 million in 2021.
That cleared first base for Walsh, who hit .277 with an .850 OPS, 29 homers and 98 RBIs, and was named an American League All-Star for the first time. Pujols, now 42, signed with the Dodgers and was productive in a reserve role before returning to the St. Louis Cardinals this spring.
Upton joins Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Vernon Wells, Gary Matthews Jr., and C.J. Wilson on the lengthy list of overpaid and underperforming stars the Angels have employed — and let go with millions left on their contracts — in the last 15 years.
With the lines between the American and National leagues being blurred, MLB has a great opportunity for division realignment in the future.
Upton signed a six-year, $133-million deal with Detroit in 2016. He was traded to the Angels in August 2017 and had a productive first full season in Anaheim, batting .257 with an .808 OPS, 30 homers and 85 RBIs in 2018.
The Angels, fearing Upton would exercise an opt-out clause in his contract after 2017, tore up that contract and signed him to the extension that added an additional year — at a hefty $28 million — to his original contract.
Upton suffered a major toe injury on the eve of the 2019 season and hit .215 with 12 homers and 40 RBIs in 63 games. He hit .204 with nine homers and 22 RBIs in 42 games in 2020 and was plagued by lower back injuries in 2021, when he hit .211 with a .705 OPS, 17 homers and 41 RBIs in 89 games.
Upton has a career .262 average and .814 OPS with 324 homers and 1,000 RBIs in 15 big league seasons, but the Angels got five of his most unproductive years, Upton batting .232 with a .764 OPS, 75 homers and 203 RBIs in Anaheim.
Even worse, the Angels will pay $28 million to Upton this year … for nothing.
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