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Photo Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

The Justin Upton Extension And A Plea To the Blue Jays and Josh Donaldson

On Thursday it was announced that Justin Upton has decided to forgo using the opt-out clause in his contract, instead signing a five-year deal with his current team, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The deal wasn’t quite an extension in the traditional sense, nor was it an opting-out in the traditional sense — the Angels essentially have tacked on an extra year to his deal, at $17.5 million, in exchange for Upton choosing not to opt out — but the bottom line is that rather than going to free agency, Upton is now under contract with the Angels for five years and $106 million. (MLBTR has the particulars).

Now, I think we’d all agree that Justin Upton is no Josh Donaldson. They’re different types of players, have different track records of success, play different positions, etc. There are a lot of ways in which any comparison between the two isn’t really going to work. There are, however, enough similarities to make us at least wonder whether the Angels’ deal here might allow us — and Donaldson’s agent — to infer something about what the market for Donaldson will be.

  • For starters, according to FanGraphs, both Donaldson and Upton were worth exactly 5.0 WAR in 2017. Baseball Reference gives the edge to Upton, at 5.7 WAR to Donaldson’s 4.8.
  • WAR, of course, is a counting stat, so on a per-plate-appearance basis, Donaldson was still better, as he only played 113 games this season, compared to Upton’s 152. Is really that a point in his favour though?
  • Donaldson will turn 32 in a month, and won’t reach the precipice of free agency until a year from now. Upton turned 30 at the end of August.
  • Granted, Upton has more miles on him — he’s played 1,489 big league games, compared to Donaldson’s 831 — but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Include minor league games and Upton has played 1,722 over 12 seasons compared to Donaldson’s 1,416 over eleven. Then consider that over 400 of Donaldson’s games were behind the plate, and maybe the “wear and tear” argument evens out a bit.
  • And maybe Upton’s games played numbers actually reflect well on his ability to stay on the field: the fewest number of games he’s played over the last seven seasons is 149. Donaldson had never missed significant time before 2017, but there have certainly been injuries he’s played through.
  • That said, Upton’s skill set may not age as well as Donaldson’s. Josh is just about all bat, while Upton’s value is added to by his speed (he has 138 career steals, to Donaldson’s 32, and FanGraphs’ BsR metric rates him as 36.1 runs above average for his career, to Donaldson’s 6.7).
  • Speed may have also been a factor in Upton’s big 2017, where he produced a .341 BABIP — a mark that is higher than his career mark of .327, and significantly higher than his previous two years, .301 and .304.
  • And, speaking of those previous years, Upton was clearly worse than Donaldson in all of them. In fact, Upton’s 5.0 fWAR this season was his best mark since 2011, and the second best of his career. Donaldson’s 5.0 was the worst mark of his five seasons as a full time big leaguer.

Given the BABIP boost that Upton received this season, the fact that his previous five seasons ranged between 1.3 and 3.9 WAR, and the fact that Donaldson provided the same value in so many fewer games, and over his previous four seasons ranged from 6.6 to 8.8 WAR, I think it’s pretty clear which is the safer bet to match or exceed his 2017 production in 2018. Donaldson is the superior player, clearly, and has been by leaps and bounds over the last several seasons.

So why am I comparing him with Upton at all?

Because you don’t want to pay somebody for their past performance, so we’re still talking about two players who, right now, this year, were worth exactly the same. And with nearly a two year age gap — and nearly a three year gap in terms of when each player actually could hit the open market — the difference in value maybe isn’t quite as large as we’d think.

If that’s true, and if Upton’s deal is for “only” five years and $106 million, might a potential Donaldson extension be more palatable to the Jays than it’s generally believed?

I think we all would sure as hell like to think so. But perhaps that’s only if he and his agent are willing to be realistic about what the value next winter of a player who will be 33 on Opening Day of the first season of any free agent contract he signs will actually be.

Of course, the calculation for Upton, who has already made $95 million in his career, and was guaranteed another $85 no matter what he did here, is perhaps a little different. Donaldson has made $34 million in his career, and will add over $20 million more to that total in 2018, but he’s yet to hit a truly gigantic free agent payday. Perhaps he and his agent will push for that and will aim much, much higher than for mere “Upton Money” if they’re going to allow the Blue Jays to buy them out of their chance at free agency. But he would need only to make a couple quick calls to former teammates Edwin Encarnación and José Bautista to be reminded that, especially nowadays, and especially when it comes to players entering their mid-30s, sometimes the best offer you’re ever going to get is the one on the table in front of you. If it’s fair enough, and if it eliminates the need of having to wait, stay healthy, and hope to still have a robust market for your services, why risk it? What’s the worst that can really happen? If the Jays offer $120 million, say, how much could a free agent at age 33 possibly lose by forgoing free agency for that?

In other words, MAKE THIS HAPPEN ALREADY, BOYS!

  • Deener32

    I optimistically like to think that JoDo proactively going to management a few weeks before the end of the season, and letting the front office know that he likes it in Toronto, and that he hopes they can work something out is a great sign. So maybe clearer heads prevail and they can find a way to lock this guy up from years 32-37.

    5/120 feels light though.

  • Nice Guy Eddie

    Why should the Blue Jays offer anything? Anything at all? There is no point in paying JD $25 million a year to play third if they are in last play and destined to stay there for the length of his contract. The much smarter plan is to wait and see how this season plays out. If they make the playoffs, and have a chance to do so beyond that, then they can sign him next year. If they finish last again, or technically second last, then why sink a fortune into JD, especially when they haven’t seen his next season.

    • Nice Guy Eddie

      I meant to add that if the Blue Jays finish at the bottom of the standings again, which I think is likely given that their offence is headlined by $20 million Troy, $20 million Martin, and a host of other guys who aren’t named Justin Smoak, with an offensive zero in the upper minors thanks to 6 years of Incompetent Alex’s drafting and 8 years of JP’s, then we trade JD at the break.