Is Justin Upton a forgotten man for the Angels?
By Kyle Franzoni
In a star-studded line-up, Justin Upton feels like a forgotten man on the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
When looking at a lineup card that includes such superstars as Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, Albert Pujols, and the newly signed Anthony Rendon, it can be a bit overwhelming. It can also lead you to miss one other important name to the Angels puzzle; Justin Upton.
To be fair, you can forgive yourself if you forgot about Upton. After all, the outfielder didn’t set foot on the field in 2019 until June 17th and then had his season shut down on September 13th. When all was said and done, the left fielder managed to appear in just 63 games last season due to ongoing knee issues that limited both his health and productivity.
On the latter, Upton didn’t do himself any favors when he was in the lineup. As a position player, he produced at a below replacement-level value (-0.2 fWAR, 92 wRC+), and slashed an uninspiring .215/.309/.416 with 12 home runs and 40 RBI. With the disappearing acts both in and out of the line-up, it is easy to see why the former 1st overall pick seems to be the odd man out.
The question is, can Upton put himself back into the discussion in 2020?
Forget the conjecture over whether there will or won’t be a season. As we don’t have an answer to that point, we’ll assume an optimistic stance and believe that the year will be played, if even in a shortened format. Obviously that is in flux as the owners and players battle it out, but the general assumption is that we will see some sort of season in 2020.
Remember, Upton is just one season removed from a 3.1 fWAR campaign with a 123 wRC+ and 30 home runs in 2018. That came on the heels of a 137 wRC+ and 5.2 fWAR season split between the Tigers and Angels, one that netted him a five-year, $106 million extension from the Angels.
Assuming he is fully recovered from the patellar tendinitis issues from a season ago, Upton finds himself in a unique position this season, but the recipe for success may have changed a bit.
Let’s assume that David Fletcher will be the leadoff man and that Trout will likely bat in the two-hole. While Upton has been slotted in behind Trout over the last two seasons (when healthy) and batted primarily in the three or four-hole, the Angels will likely see Anthony Rendon take that spot in the line-up in 2020 and beyond. With the first three batters all being right-handed, that may force the Angels to hit Ohtani fourth, allowing for a lefty to break-up the right-heavy core. That means that Upton could slide down into the fifth spot in the line-up, followed by Pujols.
Over the course of his career, Upton has taken 778 plate appearances while hitting fifth, with 674 official at-bats. In that spot, he owns a .266/.362/.473 batting line with a .208 ISO and a wRC+ of 123. That seems right in line with his .266/.347/.476 career line with a .210 ISO and wRC+ of 120.
That all said, a likely new spot in the line-up isn’t going to do the 32-year-old any favors. He’s no longer going to benefit from better pitches by following Trout. Upton will also likely have the unenviable task of having Albert Pujols behind him in the lineup. As formidable as Albert was in his early years, he is no longer the force he once was and pitchers may choose to work around Upton and face Pujols instead.
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Still, there is an opportunity there, and Upton will be a fixture in the middle of the Angels lineup through 2022. It will all be dependent on how well he stays healthy (is the tendinitis behind him?) and how productive he can be within a new batting order. If the guys ahead of him can produce as they’ve shown in the past, and Pujols manages a rebound of his own accord, then Upton may stand a chance to remind Angels fans that he was once considered an important piece of the future with the organization.