By: Will Burchfield
Justin Upton hasn’t thought about it much, but he may be forced to think about it soon.
The slugger can opt out of his contract after this season, and there’s a factor for him to consider beyond financial security. The team he signed with in 2016 could look very different after Monday’s 4 p.m. trade deadline.
“I came here to win, so I’d have to see what the landscape is like at the end of it,” Upton said. “But I enjoy playing here. I enjoy the guys in the clubhouse, I enjoy the atmosphere, the city. That decision’s long down the road.”
Upton is signed through 2021 at a cost of $22.125 million per year. He’d leave $88.5 million on the table by opting out after this season, but he’d also save himself from potentially wasting a good chunk of his prime on a rebuilding team.
It all depends on how Al Avila and the Tigers play things out over the next few months.
“I mean, I have an opt-out because it’s there for me to consider. It’s something that I have, it’s something that’s in my favor,” said Upton. “Obviously that conversation will be had when it needs to be had. But right now, I get to play every day. I’m a Detroit Tiger until I’m not.”
The Tigers have already dealt J.D. Martinez. Justin Verlander, Justin Wilson and Ian Kinsler may soon be next. The challenge for Upton will be assessing where the Tigers stand when his opt-out window arrives after the 2017 World Series.
“You do want to win and we don’t know what Al’s plans are for the organization, so we can’t live in the future and predict what’s gonna happen,” he said.
It’s a tricky situation. When Upton signed with the Tigers prior to the 2016 season, the organization was firmly in win-now mode. The outlook has changed significantly in the past year and a half. The question is how drastically — and how soon — will the effects of a rebuild be felt at the big-league level?
“You can’t afford to live life in the past or in the future because that means you’re not present, man. I try to take every day. If this is my last day hanging out with Justin Verlander or Ian Kinsler — I don’t know that — I’m gonna enjoy today,” said Upton.
Does the possibility of parting ways with Kinsler worry Upton at all?
“Does it worry me? We’re grown men,” Upton said with a chuckle. “We’ve got four or five months off in the offseason, we’ll get together, we’ll get to hang out. That’s not something you can worry about when you’re playing baseball, because you’ll be upset a lot.”
Upton will be 30 in August. He’s enjoying one of the best seasons of his career, with 17 home runs, 67 RBI and an .884 OPS. If he opts out of his contract, he could secure a similar payday on the open market this winter. The opportunity cost in electing free agency isn’t all that high.
It could be significantly higher in staying with the Tigers. Upton wants to win, and this ballclub appears headed for a lot of losing in the next three to four years.
If that fate becomes clear, either after the trade deadline or by the start of free agency, expect Upton to think long and hard about opting out.