Would the Houston Astros Add a Fourth Outfielder in Justin Upton?
Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle reported that the Houston Astros have had preliminary talks with both Justin Upton and Ian Desmond. Desmond should be no real surprise as his positional versatility and Silver Slugger potential mix well with his youth and potential cost. But Upton, on the other hand, was peculiar. Why would Jeff Luhnow be interested in an outfielder who is projected to earn around $20 million annually and has vociferously spoken out against a short-term contract?
Upton has averaged 24.7 HR, 16 SB, .202 ISO, and .331 BABIP over the last seven seasons. That consistent production amid some anemic lineups has justifiably driven up his price tag. He is still a menacing power threat even after faring noticeably worse against left-handed pitching in 2015. But the Astros could be looking for something far more exciting: the chance to clone George Springer.
Upton: 150 G, 26 HR, 81 RBI, 19 SB, 11.0% BB%, 25.6% K%, .203 ISO, .304 BABIP, .251 AVG, .336 OBP, .454 SLG, .340 wOBA, 120 WRC+, 4.6 BsR, 3.6 WAR
Springer: 102 G, 16 HR, 41 RBI, 16 SB, 11.1% BB%, 24.2% K%, .183 ISO, .342 BABIP, .276 AVG, .367 OBP, .459 SLG, .360 wOBA, 129 WRC+, 5.3 BsR, 3.7 WAR
The differences between their ISO, BABIP, OBP, SLG, wOBA, and even WAR are fractions of a point. Springer played in 48 fewer games, but their seasons were almost identical. This data should make Astros fans drool over a full healthy season of George Springer, as he would likely have eclipsed Upton in many of these categories if he had played 48 more games. What’s more intriguing? The idea of a full year of a healthy Springer or that this was a down year for Upton?
Here is something that may shock you: George Springer is barely under two years younger than Upton. Upton was drafted out of Great Bridge High School as the first overall pick in the 2005 draft and made his debut with the Arizona Diamondbacks at 19 years-old in 2007. Springer would be drafted by the Astros four years later when Upton was having his best year as a pro. Because of his age and experience, a long-term deal is far easier to stomach with Upton than with, say, Chris Davis, as even a six-year deal would conclude at Upton’s age-34 season.
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But as incredible as it would be to see Upton in the Houston outfield, the daydream is not without its flaws. Upton is 2nd among all active outfielders in fielding errors with 65 over nine seasons. Only Carlos Beltran has more, but his 74 errors are over 18 seasons. Upton’s 2.0 UZR (average at best) with the Padres was the first time since his stellar 2011 season that he finished the season with a positive UZR. He recovered from his disastrous -9.6 UZR in 2013, but there is still room for improvement.
Upton’s power swing would thrive at Minute Maid Park, which has finished in the top ten of the most homerun-friendly ballparks in eight of the last twelve years (aberrations include 14th place in 2007, 11th place in 2009 and 2010, and 18th place in 2012). Upton is not necessarily a pull-hitter. His 39.4% pull% in 2015 was the second-highest of his career and equates to right around league average.
And while his former home Chase Field is known as a hitter’s park, let’s compare its dimensions to Minute Maid Park’s. Left field at MMP is 315 ft. and 330 ft. at Chase. Left center is 362 ft. at MMP and 374 ft. at Chase. Deep left center is 404 ft. at MMP and 413 ft. at Chase. Center field and right center field only have a one to two feet difference between the two parks, but right field is 326 ft. at MMP and 334 ft. at Chase.
Those eight to fifteen feet can make a substantial difference, especially with the Crawford Boxes and shallow right field bleachers providing additional support. In his two years at pitcher-friendly Turner Field, Upton hit 27 and 29 home-runs, just shy of his career high 31 from 2011. Interestingly enough, Turner Field’s left field and right field walls are even further from home plate than Chase Field’s.
Signing Upton would further cloud the Astros’ crowded outfield. The Astros’ gamble on Colby Rasmus paid off handsomely in 2015, as Rasmus pivoted a low-profile signing into one of the most memorable Postseason performances in Astros history. It will be interesting to see how the Astros handle his contract if he outplays his projections again, as all signs point to his eventual departure to make room for the Astros’ bounty of outfield prospects.
But with Daz Cameron, Kyle Tucker, and Derek Fisher still years away from their call-ups, the Astros have a peculiar outfield logjam. It is safe to assume that George Springer is locked into right field barring an injury. It is also safe to assume that Carlos Gomez will handle center field all the same. Gomez is a Scott Boras client entering a contract year after an injury-plagued down season, so, like Rasmus, it will be very interesting to see how the Astros handle his contract if he exceeds expectations.
Jake Marisnick, still only 23, has very briefly flashed power potential but makes up for his otherwise weak bat with stellar defense and speed. Preston Tucker, 25, has established his ability to hit righties, as his 13 HR and 120 wRC+ made him a great platoon partner and fourth outfielder. If Upton is signed, that would all but guarantee that Tucker would spend the season at Triple-A Fresno. Upton in left, Gomez in center, Springer in right, and Marisnick or Rasmus as excellent backup options. That is a fearsome outfield when healthy.
Could signing Justin Upton be what Jeff Luhnow meant by “be creative”? Maybe this is only time we hear Upton’s name and the Astros in the same breath. But the Astros are willing to spend money if the fit is right, as evidenced by the attempted acquisitions of Andrew Miller and Cole Hamels. Upton is not exactly the hit-for-average quality defender that Alex Gordon is. And he may have finished 2015 with a worse strikeout rate than George Springer. But if the Astros sign Upton, they would acquire one of the best bats in baseball, a thrilling young superstar, and a host of new roster options.
**Stats from Baseball-Reference**