Yashinsky: Justin Upton Deal is the Juan Gonzalez Near-Disaster, 17 Years Later

August 16, 2016, 4:54 PM by  Joey Yashinsky

Justin Upton

Once upon a time, the Detroit Tigers made an offer to Juan Gonzalez that would have tabbed the 30-year-old outfielder as the highest-paid player in baseball history: eight years for $140 million dollars.  In 1999-2000, this was astronomical money.  Nowadays, that’ll buy you a couple backup centers to fill out your NBA roster.

But to the surprise of many, Gonzalez rejected the offer.  Maybe he was hesitant to play in the soon-to-open Comerica Park for the next eight years of his career.  After all, this was when the fences were still at their original, much deeper dimensions.  Maybe he was nervous to join a club that had racked up the most losses in baseball during the 1990’s. 

The offer was not a ridiculous one at the time.  Gonzalez had been one of the most prolific hitters in the American League throughout his career.  He bagged AL MVP honors in ’96 and ’98.  He entered his first (and only) year as a Tiger coming off a quartet of seasons with lofty home run totals of 47, 42, 45, and 39. 

Little did the Tigers know at the time that when Juan-Gone gave a thumbs down to their generous offer, it was one of the bigger bullets the franchise would ever dodge.

Gonzalez had a ho-hum 2000 season in Detroit, then had an outstanding year with Cleveland the year after, and that was basically it.  He’d play for a few more years, but never came close to returning to the super-powerful offensive force that he’d been with Texas the decade prior. 

This most recent off-season, the Tigers went searching for outfield help.  They didn’t do it via the trade market, and they didn’t slide in some hot prospect to take over a starting spot in the spring.  Instead, they opened up the bank vault and offered a truckload of money to free agent Justin Upton.

Unfortunately, lightning would not strike twice for the Detroit front office.  This time, the answer was a resounding YES.  They dotted the I’s, crossed the T’s, and the Tigers were the proud new owners of a $132 million dollar outfielder for the next six seasons.



Upton Goes Down Swinging...Again

One of the major concerns when inking Upton to such a lucrative long-term deal was the fact that he’d always been one of the bigger strikeout guys in the game.  In each of the three seasons prior to joining Detroit, Upton was top-five in the National League in K’s.  It’s been the same story in 2016.

In 112 games played, Upton has been punched out a whopping 138 times.  That’s good for fourth in all of baseball.  But the issue isn’t just the countless whiffs.  It’s the fact that if you are going to swing so mightily and miss so often, you ought to be socking plenty of dingers along the way, too.  Take a look at the five biggest strikeout victims this year, along with their power numbers, and see which one does not belong with the rest. 

Chris Davis  --  24 HR, 162 K
Chris Carter  --  27 HR, 150 K
Mike Napoli  --  29 HR, 148 K
Justin Upton  --  13 HR, 138 K
Mark Trumbo  --  34 HR, 131 K

You hate to carry anybody on your club putting the ball in play so infrequently, but if you are to have such a hacker, the saving grace is that he'll usually put the ball in the seats a fair amount, too.  But with Upton, a guy that is not hitting for much power and also striking out in 30% of his trips to the plate, his presence often serves as a true dead spot in the lineup.  And a very expensive one at that.

Juan Gonzalez

Injuries Mounting

The major thorn in the Tigers side right now is the growing disabled list.

Nick Castellanos had his stellar campaign rudely interrupted by a broken hand.  Cameron Maybin joined him with a pesky thumb issue.  Jordan Zimmermann and Mike Pelfrey are dealing with back and muscle strains.  Jose Iglesias is taking his annual trip to the DL.  Even Miguel Cabrera is dinged up with a sore bicep.

It goes without saying that when the injuries mount, especially to everyday players, there’s an extra burden that falls on the veteran run-producers of the club.

Justin Upton was signed to be one of those guys.  Of late, he has been anything but.

Upton has started all 13 games the Tigers have played in August.  He’s batted 54 times.  And he is still looking for his very first RBI of the month; his first August extra-base hit for that matter, too. 

Not surprisingly, with Upton in the most serious of funks, the team has fallen into a tailspin, too.  The Tigers recently went to Seattle and got swept, the most heartbreaking of which was a 15-inning, 6-5 classic that saw the Mariners make two wild comebacks to finally escape with the W.  Upton was especially woeful in the game, going 0-for-7 with two Ks and a double play. 

For whatever reason, the twin-killings have been coming fast and furious for Upton lately.  He leads all of MLB in that department for the month of August, having bounced into five rally-killing DP’s in just his last 10 games.  It’s usually a good thing to be at or near the top of the league leaderboard in a number of offensive categories.  In the case of Upton, not so much.

Not Dead Yet

The unique thing about baseball is the sheer longevity of the season itself.  A guy like Upton can feel like he is struggling, fighting himself at the plate for months and months; yet still have plenty of time to finish strong and wash the bad memories away.

The Tigers have 44 games left.  Over a quarter of the season still remains.

If Upton can somehow figure out a way to put bat to ball more often, and maybe even send that ball flying high and far every couple of nights, his debut Tigers campaign could be rescued.  With the team still in the thick of the “Fight for Mediocrity,” also known as the Race for the 2nd Wild Card, these are the games and at-bats fans will remember most.

Find a little power surge, get that home run total north of 20, and suddenly the Tigers fan base is no longer watching #8 in left field while uttering things like, “Do you think the Tigers kept their receipt on this Upton signing?  Are there any returns in baseball?  Wait, is this guy actually 1998 Geronimo Berroa and nobody ever bothered to tell us???”

The Tigers once offered the world on a silver platter to Juan Gonzalez.  They managed to hit the reverse lottery, missing out on their treasure, but coming out a whole lot sweeter on the other side.  A handful of years later, they had dished out big bucks to Pudge Rodriguez and Co., and were playing in the World Series for the first time in over 20 years. 

Al Avila didn’t get lucky like GM Randy Smith did back in 1999.  Avila’s guy accepted the deal -- then forgot how to hit.

If he doesn’t remember soon, the upcoming autumn in the Motor City will be one without postseason baseball. 

And the next five years of the Upton contract will feel like a tightening noose around the neck of the Detroit Tigers franchise.

Leave a Comment:

Photo Of The Day