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Could the Rays Pursue Justin Upton?

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He could be the impact bat that has eluded the Rays for years.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

In a recent column, Marc Topkin reviewed some moves the Rays still could  make with spring training just barely over a month away. Some of these moves have been on the rumor mill since the start of the winter meetings, when the Rays were said to be in serious talks with the Cubs to swap starting pitching for a young impact bat.

The talks seemingly never progressed and Chicago dealt Starlin Castro to New York, and then signed Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist. The Rays have also been linked to the Dodgers, Rockies, and Rangers but with the exception of the thrilling city council vote and settling with nine of the ten arbitration eligible players, it's been all quiet on the Gulf front.

This quiet has seemingly extended to Justin Upton's free agent market.  He should be one of the most coveted outfielders in the game. He's got years of experience although he will be just 28 years old at the start of the season. Since making his debut at the ripe age of 19 in 2007, Upton has been a MVP candidate three times, has won two Silver Sluggers, and is also a three time all-star.

However, he has received little attention this off-season. MLB Trade Rumors profiled Upton just over a week ago and projected him to make $147 million over seven years. According to his agent, he remains intent on securing a long-term deal, as he told John Heyman:

"We are not considering shorter-term deals at this time. The goal has been and will continue to be a long term contract for Justin Upton."

But as the start of spring training approaches, would Upton consider a pillow contract?  After all, next year's free agent class doesn't look particularly strong, and the Chris Davis deal reminds us that contract values seem to be inflating almost exponentially.  So there's a chance that Upton and his agent could look for a lucrative one year deal.

Could Upton on a one-year deal be attractive to the Rays?

Last year, the Rays struggled against right-handed pitching. The bullpen may have been their most glaring weak spot, but the lackluster offense contributed to their second consecutive finish under .500. The team had eight batters with a wRC+ at 100 or above against RHP, and only three of those eight (Logan ForsytheKevin Kiermaier, and Steven Souza, with Kiermaier posting the highest at 108) are still with the organization. Upton's wRC+ against RHP last season, 135, looks pretty good.

While Upton was terrible against lefties last year -  58 wRC+ over 121 plate appearances - 2015 was something of an outlier, as he's usually mashed lefties and has been slightly above average against righties, making an excellent bat in a corner outfield spot. His lack of production last season may be what is giving teams pause before offering him big money.

AVG OBP SLG HR K% BB% wRC+ PA
CAREER vs LHP .273 .380 .506 60 22.7% 14.7% 135 1,234
2015 vs LHP .191 .258 .300 3 32.2% 5.1% 58 121
CAREER vs RHP .271 .342 .463 130 24.5% 8.8% 116 3,700
2015 vs RHP .266 .355 .493 23 23.8% 12.3% 135 499

Upton is also prone to the strikeout, much like his older brother with whom Rays fans are very familiar. The younger Upton was always thought to be the better overall offensive player, however. He isn't quite as fast has Melvin, but he can still swipe a few bases averaging 17 steals per year the past seven seasons. The Rays would be sacrificing some defense sending Upton out there most everyday, but if he can provide his usual offense, then that can be forgiven.


AVG OBP SLG HR K% BB% wRC+ PA WAR
2015 .251 .336 .454 26 25.6% 11.0% 120 620 3.6

2007-2015

.271 .352 .473 190 24.0% 10.3% 121 4,934 26.5

I think it would take a one year deal worth at least $20 million to bring Upton to the Rays, which with how the roster currently stands would put the 2016 payroll at $86 million. It might be "uncomfortable" for Stu, but if the Rays are able to find a suitor on whom to offload Loney, then a payroll with Upton would total $78 million, which is just $5 million more than last season. The line-up would be much more dangerous, as Upton would presumably take the spot that Desmond JenningsBrandon Guyer or Mikie Mahtook would battle for in spring training.

This would also allow the Rays to deal Jennings, Mahtook or Guyer for some value elsewhere. Upton could be part of a rotating outfield/DH combo with Souza, and the fourth outfielder.

Potential Rays Opening Day Line-up

PLAYER POS.
Kevin Kiermaier CF
Logan Forsythe 2B
Evan Longoria 3B
Justin Upton LF
Steven Souza RF
Logan Morrison 1B
Desmond Jennings DH
Rene Rivera C
Brad Miller SS

One of the obstacles to a potential Upton signing is that he was provided with a qualifying offer by the Padres, which he declined, so signing him would cost the Rays their first round pick. The draft is seen as crucial to the Rays' ability to stay competitive in the AL East.  But even first round draft picks, as Rays fans know all too well, are far from sure bets.

If the signing does fall flat, which is always possible, then the Rays are only stuck with Upton for one year.  If the front office is determined to contend in 2016, adding Upton on a one year deal could be a risk worth taking.