Angels owner Arte Moreno has spent just under two decades of his Angels ownership unafraid of making investments. He signed Vladimir Guerrero, Bartolo Colon, and Kelvin Escobar to big free agent contracts early. He added Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, C.J. Wilson, and Anthony Rendon as most sought-after players later. When the Angels acquired Justin Upton and extended him to a 5-year, $106 million contract it was not a surprise.
Prior to signing that extension in November 2017, the 30-year-old outfielder was a consistent run producer year after year. He averaged 32 home runs and 90 runs batted in per season the previous five years. The Angels had gone through a series of failed attempts to fill a hole in left field after the failed Hamilton signing.
The five-year deal appeared to be a perfect union for player and franchise.
The first year of the contract, Upton fulfilled his end of the deal, finishing the 2018 season .257/.344/.463 with 30 home runs and 85 runs batted in. His range factor per game in left field was ranked highest among American League left fielders. The four-time All-Star was providing protection behind Mike Trout and accomplishing the task of a mid-lineup hitter.
Shelved By Injury
Upton reported to spring training camp with injury in 2019. The Angels carefully allowed him to heal to prepare him for readiness on Opening Day. He began playing games the final week of camp in Arizona prior to returning to California for the Freeway Series. In the first game of that series against the Interstate-5 rival Dodgers, the left fielder collided with the short left field wall attempting to make a running catch. The injury diagnosis was turf toe. The timetable for his return was eight-12 weeks.
Suddenly, the outfielder who had played 145 games or more the previous eight seasons was on the shelf. When he finally did return to the field in mid-June, he was not the same player. He was clearly struggling with discomfort from injury, evident through his poor performance at the plate. Upton finished the season hitting .215 with 12 home runs in 63 games. The additional three-years and $72 million committed to Upton was at risk of being a complete bust.
The COVID Season
Upton was struggling at the plate during Spring Training in 2020 until he hit his first home run of the spring March 9. He went 2-for-2 with the home run against the Indians in Goodyear. That would be the final game before the pandemic shut down baseball. Upton waited at home like the rest of his teammates and players around the league; like the rest of us, he wondered about his family’s safety and the uncertainty surrounding our country.
When he returned to baseball in July, Upton slumped again to start the season. Finishing the first full month of the 60-game season on August 31, hitting his fourth home run of the season. Unfortunately, his batting average was a horrific .133 with an abysmal OPS of .522. With prospects like Jo Adell and Brandon Marsh waiting in the wings, the remaining two-plus years of contract looked lost.
The calendar flipped to September and the 33-year-old slugger appeared to get his groove back. Looking confident again at the plate, Upton would finish the final month of the season hitting .284 with a .936 OPS. The outfielder launched five home runs and drove in 12 runners during the final 19 contests of the year, giving hope to new general manager Perry Minasian as he constructed his roster for 2021.
JUp ready for Opening Day now. https://t.co/maUbgRcVX3
— Halo Life ⚾ (@_HaloLife) March 5, 2021
It’s A New Year
Today, the veteran outfielder is in camp ready and on a mission to prove his detractors wrong. Through eight spring training games, Upton is hitting .438 (7-for-16) with 3 home runs and an OPS of 1.563. Slotted nicely behind David Fletcher, Trout, Rendon, and Shohei Ohtani in the heart of the Angels lineup. His production in the middle will have a vital impact on the success of this team offensively. A healthy and productive Upton in the lineup is the essential to a successful Angels season this year.
With two years remaining on his contract, expect Upton be counted on in left field every night this season. Next year, assuming Albert Pujols has retired or moved on, Upton could see more time at designated hitter. This opns opportunities to Adell or Marsh to become his heir-apparent in left field. Joe Maddon is hoping to give Upton a chance to appear in his first World Series before his contract ends.