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Red Sox Free Agent Target: Justin Upton

The recently released Angel could be had for the minimum. Is he worth a look?

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MLB: Spring Training-Los Angeles Angels at Colorado Rockies Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

So far in 2022, the offense for the Boston Red Sox has left plenty to be desired, as the team has scored only 12 runs through four games and has had one of the lowest power outputs as a club in all of baseball. Now, before this is read as some sort of panicking post about the offense, it’s not at all. One of the few teams with a lower power output is the Dodgers, and nobody is worried about their offense. Likewise, I’m not worried about Boston’s offense. It’s been four games, and weird things happen in four games. Howevah, while overall I’d certainly expect the offense to get on track and become one of the better groups in the league, these first few games have served to expose a couple of weaknesses for the lineup that could be anticipated before the season, namely the outfield and the bench.

As far as the outfield goes, part of their poor start has to do with Enrique Hernández still looking for his first hit of the season, something that I’m pretty sure will happen at some point. On the other hand, Jackie Bradley Jr. has been as unproductive as many expected, and we saw with Christian Arroyo in right that there was some major defensive adjustment for modest-at-best offensive upside. And in a similar vein, we’ve seen just in general that the bench doesn’t inspire a ton of hope, and when you get into situations where players like Trevor Story have to miss a couple of games, and Hernández is off to his aforementioned cold start, that the lack of depth becomes ever more clear.

While it’s not technically too early for teams to make a trade, it is practically too early for teams to make trades, generally speaking at least, so the only way to upgrade the depth, especially in the outfield, is either through internal promotions or free agency. Internally, they have some options, though they’re in the form of major question marks like Franchy Cordero and Jarren Duran, among others. In free agency, Michael Conforto is still out there, and while he’s left-handed and ideally they’d like a righty, he’d certainly upgrade the roster and is worth a long look as long as he is still available. If they were looking for a less expensive option who would be more depth than someone to insert into the lineup every day, though, Justin Upton could be had for just the minimum.

For a long time, Upton was one of the most intriguing bats in the game, a former number one overall pick from back in 2005 that had some strong seasons, but never seemed to consistently tap into his potential at the plate. Still, while he’s carried strikeout rates that are higher than you’d like, he’s spent much of his career being able to draw walks while harnessing his considerable power, at least making him an asset at the plate. Today though, he’s heading towards the end of his career and he was outright released by the Angels before the start of this season. That doesn’t reflect all that well on his abilities, of course, but it does mean that he is getting his substantial salary paid by Los Angeles, leaving him available to every other team for the minimum.

If the Red Sox, or whoever else, were to go after Upton, it should be clear that this would be a situational addition, and, again, not somebody who would be playing everyday unless something has gone wrong. Last season, the now-34-year-old outfielder hit just .211/.296/.409 for a below-average 92 wRC+. He hasn’t been above-average overall by that metric since 2018, when he had a 121 wRC+. On the other hand, hitting from the right side he’s hit well against left-handed pitching the last couple of seasons. In 2021, he posted a 130 wRC+ against southpaws, and he had a mark of 108 in 2020, albeit in relatively small samples.

Still, there is some potential value there with his ability to hit left-handed pitching, but that would need to be valued fairly highly — and it might for this Red Sox bench! — because he also doesn’t really bring much defensively. Even in his prime, Upton was more of a fine outfielder than a very good one, and now at this point in his career in his mid-30s, there really isn’t much defensive value here. At Fenway you could probably feel okay with him in left field standing in front of the Monster, but by just about every defensive metric he graded out well below-average in 2021.

Los Angeles Angels v Colorado Rockies Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

And that really brings us back to the crux of the question at hand: Is this worth a pursuit for Boston? As mentioned above, he has to sign for the minimum, so salary wise there is no reason to waffle on it. That doesn’t mean it’s a slam dunk yes, though. First, you’d have to think of the fit. Theoretically, I think it could work if they were willing to move Alex Verdugo back to right field at times, opening up left for Upton and/or J.D. Martinez, while also allowing Arroyo to go back to mostly playing on the infield where he’s much more comfortable. This would also push Jonathan Araúz back down to Triple-A. Offensively, the bench would certainly improve.

But would that be worth the defensive downgrade, and the team’s presumed desire to keep Verdugo in left field as much as possible? That’s much more debatable. Then there’s the question of 40-man space. Would it be worth it to designate one of the fringe pitchers like Tyler Danish, Phillips Valdez, or Austin Davis, or perhaps even Araúz, to make room for Upton? Again, I think that’s certainly up for debate at the very least.

I would agree with anyone that says the Red Sox could really use an upgrade for their bench and could use an offensive boost in general for some of the softer spots on the roster. Upton has some potential to add that kind of impact when used in the correct situations. And the fact that he’s available for the minimum means you at least have to think about it. After thinking about it, though, the conclusion I come to is that the upgrades you’d get in a right-handed bench bat who can hit lefties is not worth the 40-man loss you’d have to endure, nor is it worth the defensive hit you’d take whenever you got him into the lineup.