Melvin Upton Jr.: The new Blue Jays wildcard
With the Toronto Blue Jays’ everyday centre-fielder Kevin Pillar on the 15-day disabled list – he says he’ll only need the minimum stint – recent trade acquisition Melvin Upton Jr is the lineup’s new regular.
It’s a role and position that he’s familiar with, and on the many teams around Major League Baseball with a weaker outfield than the Blue Jays’, it’s a role he’d quickly have elsewhere.
While the Upton deal benefits the Blue Jays most in 2017, when both Michael Saunders and Jose Bautista could walk in free agency, the short-term MLB-level depth he offers mirrors what the front office led by Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro has targeted. In Francisco Liriano, Scott Feldman, Mike Bolsinger, Joaquin Benoit, and Jason Grilli, Toronto has consistently raised the floor of their roster.
Consistent playing time could be just what Upton needs after going 4-for-32 (.125) with just one walk and 14 strikeouts through his first 11 games with the Jays. In his 92 games with the San Diego Padres prior to the move, Upton owned an OPS of .743 with 16 home runs and 20 steals.
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The flaws of his game are not entirely unlike Pillar’s. Hold your thumb over the “Name” category on the box score, and you may not notice a great difference in the next two weeks. Upton will take his strikeouts, has walked just 5.8% of the time in 2016 (a career low) and has the speed to push the envelope on the bases. Hitting towards the bottom of the order, especially if he’s followed by a weaker bat in Josh Thole or Darrell Ceciliani, there’s also some flexibility for manager John Gibbons to play with Upton’s raw physical tools.
His defence will be an asset, as well. No, he won’t mimic Pillar’s high-flying heroics, but he’ll step in as the outfield’s top defender without much challenge.
In many ways, this is also Upton’s first real opportunity to make an impression on management and the front office in regards to next year’s team.
Keep in mind that the Blue Jays are paying Upton just $5 million of the remaining $22 million on his contract (at the time of transaction). Upton’s $16.45 million salary in 2017 would make him a near-lock to start next season with that big a financial commitment, but given the unique financial parameters, the Blue Jays are not being held to anything here. Positional need is working well in his favour, but regardless, he’ll be in competition.
If Pillar is able to return immediately after his DL stint, Upton’s starting role will carry him through Tampa Bay, Houston, New York, a critical series against Cleveland, and Los Angeles.