By Robert Cunningham, Angelswin.com Senior Writer
In 2020, Justin Upton will be entering his 14th professional season in Major League Baseball at the tender age of 32 years young. He is one of those guys, like Brett Anderson, that you feel like they have played forever and should be old men but they still have kick and life left in them as they progress through the seasons.
Certainly, last year is one of those seasons that Justin would prefer to forget.
In 2019, Upton ended a 10-year streak of playing 130 games or more each season, playing in only 63 Major League games to the tune of a weak wRC+ of 92, which also broke his streak of posting at least a wRC+ of 105 over that same time period.
Uncharacteristically, Justin suffered from ailments, including a quad and knee injury, that ultimately limited his playing time and forced him to end his season early to receive treatment. The good news is that he appears to be recovering well and is projected to return to good health prior to Spring Training.
This is good because the Angels really need Upton to recover to form. His offensive woes in 2019, most likely tied directly to his injuries, can be seen in his three-year hitting history, below:
Justin Upton's Three-Year (2017-2019) Hitting History
It should be noted that Justin has a career wRC+ of 120, so, other than last year, he has been above his own average during his tenure with the Angels. Really last year seems to be an injury-related abnormality.
In that light, assuming Upton recovers well and is healthy to start the 2020 campaign, it would not be unexpected to see his numbers regress to his career mean and see a more productive season (say a wRC+ in the 115 to 125 range) out of the Angels left fielder.
This brings me to one important note. Justin has been strikingly poor against LHP the last two seasons. Quite honestly when the author looked this up during mid-season 2019, it was stunning to see how bad the numbers were, as it was unexpected:
Justin Upton's Five-Year (2015-2019) Hitting History Vs. LHP
In fact, over the last five years, he has had three really bad offensive seasons (2015: wRC+ of 58 , 2018: wRC+ of 66, and 2019: wRC+ of 47) against them. On the flip side he had better years in 2016 and 2017 where he had a wRC+ of 100 and 202, respectively, both on elevated BABIP numbers (.300 and .369, individually). He has been wildly inconsistent against lefties and the trend is worrisome.
To be clear poor production against LHP is not going to hurt the 2020 Angels too much. In fact, the Angels can mitigate this by simply having a back-up outfielder such as Goodwin, Hermosillo, or even Ward, pick-up some of Justin's at-bat's against them. The Angels could even acquire another bat to play 1B with some outfield experience to split time between the two positions to pick up some of the slack.
One thing Upton has done well, consistently, is hit RHP:
Justin Upton's Five-Year (2015-2019) Hitting History Vs. RHP
People do not realize or want to recognize what an accomplished hitter Justin has been in his thirteen seasons in Major League Baseball. Recently, on Twitter, @MLB asked the question, "Who is the best left fielder of the 2010's?", and Upton came in last, vote-wise, which is a shame but is a by-product of his relatively low profile in baseball. Certainly Braun, Gordon, and Yelich are great players but Ryan has a PED's history, Alex was a strong defender but not nearly as good of a hitter, and Christian may go down as the best LF of all-time but he picked up the most recency bias in the voting process, perhaps deservedly so.
The point is that Upton has been a durable power-hitter across his entire career and heading into his age 32 season, there is no reason to believe that 2020 will be any different for him, from an offensive perspective.
Defensively, it might be the same or it might begin getting progressively worse. By both FanGraphs and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), Justin has been below average, mostly via unforced errors and an imprecise throwing arm. His range has been about average as well as his Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). Basically as he continues to age, his defense will get worse and his tendinitis issue from last season may or may not contribute to his defensive performance moving forward, only time will tell.
It is this potential for worsening defensive skills that will ultimately drive Upton to the designated hitter spot once Pujols contract expires or he retires. Basically, Brandon Marsh, one of our really good young prospects, took a huge stride forward near the end of the Minor League season in the Arizona Fall League and he will almost assuredly be ready to play in the Majors next year or the year after.
So these next two seasons will be the last that the Angels place Justin in left field, based on what happens with Pujols. Once that change occurs the Angels will have an incredible outfield of Trout, Adell, and Marsh, which should be very exciting for Angels fans as all three have really dynamic tools and Mike Trout is, of course, Mike Trout.
Upton is owed $72M over the next three seasons. When Eppler signed him the Angels were, in-part, paying for his durability and for the most part he has been on the field pretty consistently minus last season. This is actually a trend across many of the players that Eppler is acquiring as evidenced by the Bundy trade and the Teheran signing.
Having good players produce on a regular basis is what carries teams successfully through 162-game seasons as well as having excellent team depth at every position. Justin is a good example of this quality, consistent production.
Finally, if Brandon Marsh has a breakout season in 2020 or 2021, there is always a possibility that the Angels might try to trade Upton, particularly if Justin also has an excellent season and the Halos are, for some reason, out of contention. This seems really unlikely and is further complicated by the fact that Upton has a no-trade clause, perhaps making this a moot conversation, but if the player and management agree a move is best for everyone involved, it could be a long-shot possibility, but highly doubtful.
The expectation should be that Justin Upton will continue to play at an above average level for the next three seasons and, when Pujols is gone, take over full-time designated hitter duties, perhaps with a touch of left field, first base, and pinch hitter appearances until he, too, leaves after the 2022 season is complete and the Angels move forward with young prospects like the aforementioned Marsh and possibly others like Jordyn Adams or Trent Deveaux for example.
Next up is the Right Field article of the Primer Series.