Back in November, the Angels and Justin Upton agreed on a five-year, $106 million contract extension. For a while, he was an anomaly as his free agent peers went deep into the offseason without a contract. J.D. Martinez was able to ink a similar contract with the Red Sox recently and Eric Hosmer signed an eight-year, $144 million contract with the Padres in mid-February. Prior to his current contract, Upton had a six-year, $132.75 million contract with the Tigers, signed in January 2016.
Upton spoke with Pedro Moura of The Athletic about, among other things, his experience as a free agent two years ago and the free agent market now. He was very honest and some of the details he shares don’t paint the owners across baseball in a good light.
When he was a free agent after the 2015 season, Upton says teams called him and instead of trying to court him, they listed all of his negative attributes like his defense. He also said that, “I had a stretch in free agency where, within a week, every team called and offered me a one-year deal. After eight years of pretty good baseball. In my mind, that’s really, really, really sketchy and weird.” Moura asked him to clarify and Upton said between seven and 10 teams did that.
Upton, born in August 1987, was 28 years old when he was a free agent. He was coming off of a season in which he had a .790 OPS and 26 home runs in the very pitcher-friendly confines of Petco Park and had a career .825 OPS to that point. According to Baseball Reference, he had accrued over 25 Wins Above Replacement between his 2008-15 seasons, an average of over three WAR per season. There’s always a market for that kind of player and it just coincidentally collapsed with every team acting in a similar fashion all of a sudden.
“Teams don’t value players as people anymore,” Upton said. “They value them as a number on a sheet of paper.” That, too, rings true as every team in baseball now has an analytics department. Front offices have run the numbers and are shying away from signing free agents to long, expensive contracts. They’re choosing to sign their young players to contract extensions that prevent them from reaching free agency until, in many cases, their early 30’s. Upton also expressed as much. “I’m not saying this in a negative way at all, but when Sabermetrics came into the game and guys became stats, this was coming,” he said.
Needless to say, Upton is a sharp guy and is pretty well aware of the labor issues within Major League Baseball. The whole interview with Moura is worth a read, so go check it out at The Athletic.