With rebuild on the horizon for Tigers, could Justin Upton opt out?

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Sep 28, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers left fielder Justin Upton (8) looks on before the game against the Cleveland Indians at Comerica Park. Game called for bad weather after 5 innings. Tigers win 6-3. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

On the heels of one of his better days in his major league career, let alone his one-plus years with the Detroit Tigers, outfielder Justin Upton is undoubtedly the go-to source of offense for Detroit in 2017.

Unfortunately, the Tigers are not having the type of season they nor Upton envisioned. And with the trade deadline looming tomorrow afternoon and an organizational rebuild on the horizon, Upton is at a crossroads.

The All-Star outfielder is going to have to really think about his options, literally.

“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.”

Oct 2, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Detroit Tigers left fielder Justin Upton (8) bats against the Atlanta Braves in the fifth inning at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

For those who don’t know the specifics of Upton’s contract, the final four years of his pact are all player options, meaning he has the power to opt out after each of the next three seasons, should he ever want to test the free agent waters again.

Normally, it is hard to imagine any player set to make an additional $88.5M through the 2021 season. But for a soon-to-be 30-year-old, multi-tool high-impact player in the midst of his prime years by baseball standards.

It’s precisely that notion that could really sway him to opt out of his current deal and look to sign with a club that is better suited to win now, versus staying with a team in the Tigers that does not appear ready to win this season or next, perhaps longer.

And no doubt he will be seeing how things shape out between now and through the end of the season for Detroit.

“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.”

It certainly was not looking pretty early for Upton in his first season with Detroit a year ago. Through August 20 last season (116 games), he had a batting average under .230, an OPS barely over .650, and only 13 home runs and 46 runs batted in. That new contract was looking like a bleak one for the Tigers. But he was able to turn on the jets from that point forward and salvage the year somewhat, finishing with 31 homers and 87 RBI.

And he’s continued that late-season surge into this season, showing that there was an adjustment period for him, as is the case for most players after agreeing to play for new teams. Unfortunately, there’s been little to show for it overall with the Tigers sitting in fourth place in the American League Central Division and in “sell mode.”

But Upton knows he has a job right now, and that’s continuing to help the Tigers win as many games as possible. But he’s well-aware of the predicament he faces shortly after the 2017 World Series ends.

“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.

“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.

The 2017 World Series is scheduled to begin on October 24; the latest it can go (should it need a Game 7) is October 7. Whenever the ‘Fall Classic’ ends, players in the same boat as Justin Upton will have three days to decide whether or not they will opt into the 2018 season with their current team under the expected salary, or decline the option and explore the market.

FINANCIAL RAMIFICATIONS

From a Tigers perspective, it could very much play into how much money they will have to play with in the offseason, should Upton walk away. They’ve already shed $11.75M when trading away fellow outfielder J.D. Martinez a couple weeks back. They will also have close to $20M coming off the books with the contracts of Mike Pelfrey ($8M), Francisco Rodriguez ($6M) and Mark Lowe ($5.5M), who have all been released at some point dating back to spring training.

Sep 30, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Detroit Tigers left fielder Justin Upton (8) walks back to third base against the Atlanta Braves in the fifth inning at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The contract of catcher Alex Avila is also expiring after this year, and his $2M salary will be freed up some time between now and the end of the season. Add all the dollar amounts mentioned above and they’re getting close to $40M in “cap space” if you will.

Detroit also has impending club options for both pitcher Anibal Sanchez ($16M) and second baseman Ian Kinsler ($10M). Both carry $5M buyouts if their options are declined, which would mean a hypothetical net of $16M in additional spending money. Now you’re looking at ~$56M.

Should Upton eye for greener pastures and a contending club, that’d free up another $88.5M over the next four years; $22.125M per year in that span. Now Detroit would be looking at upwards of $80M in “cap space”, some of which will be dolled out to the Tigers’ arbitration-eligible players.

As they say in the entertainment business, stay tuned. For now, Tigers fans get to enjoy one of the finer seasons by Justin Upton.

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