As Justin Upton accrued the necessary service time to move closer to free agency, two questions predominated: How many teams would pursue him, and how high would the price tag soar? Not long ago, it was conceivable to see him signing a nine-figure deal with a "2" at the front of it.
Amid the incessant news vacuum since Upton went on the market, the lack of buzz has generated a different question: Where is the love?
The planets all seemed to align properly for Upton as free agency beckoned. He hit the open market in November as a 28-year-old, three-time All-Star who could provide reliable production at a time when offense is extremely hard to find.
Two months into the process, the market has lagged enough that his agent, Larry Reynolds, released a statement last week to dispel the notion that Upton might be willing to consider a one-year "pillow" contract and go back on the market again in a year.
"We are not considering shorter-term deals at this time," Reynolds said. "The goal has been and will continue to be a long-term contract for Justin Upton."
Timing is inevitably a factor in free agency, and Upton's isn't the greatest. He hit free agency in a winter when teams have prioritized pitching, so a lot of money is off the board. David Price, Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, Jeff Samardzija and Mike Leake will make a combined $833.5 million over the course of their next contracts, and the 30 MLB clubs have spent more than $1.2 billion overall on starters and relievers.
Upton incurred a double whammy with the presence of a bountiful outfield market this offseason. Teams in search of an outfield bat could choose among Jason Heyward, Upton, Yoenis Cespedes, Alex Gordon and Chris Davis, who is being pitched by agent Scott Boras as a potential corner-outfield placeholder until a first-base opening arises. Second-tier options range from Denard Span to Dexter Fowler to Gerardo Parra. And there has been trade buzz surrounding Marcell Ozuna, Jay Bruce, Carlos Gonzalez and several other outfielders since the offseason began.
The White Sox, Orioles, Angels, Cardinals, Tigers, Rangers and (recently) Red Sox have been mentioned in speculation as potential landing spots for Upton. But they all seem either lukewarm about signing him, resistant to committing to a six- or seven-year deal or content to wait in hopes that the price will drop.
Upton's stint in free-agent purgatory is perplexing to some people in the industry. The roster of puzzled bystanders includes Fredi Gonzalez, who managed Upton in Atlanta in 2013 and '14. Upton averaged 28 homers and 86 RBIs, posted a .267/.348/.478 slash line and won a Silver Slugger award as a Brave. And to this day, when he has a particularly productive day at the plate, Gonzalez will see the box score and shoot him an "attaboy" text.
"He's been one of my favorite players that I've managed in my career," Gonzalez said. "He shows up at the ballpark every day ready to play. He's respectful. He knows the game. He's a great teammate and clubhouse guy. He puts out 20-plus home runs and 100-plus RBIs, and people are like, 'He could do more.' Well, you know what? If he does 20 homers and 100 RBIs for the next 10-12 years, he'll be one of the premier right-handed hitters in the big leagues. That's a hell of a career.
"I'm very surprised that he's still out there. I think there are a lot of teams missing the boat on him. I really do."
Why the lack of action with Upton? Is it strictly about numbers and market forces, or do certain perceptions and an ongoing narrative feed into the inertia? Here are a few factors that might be contributing to the dynamic in his ongoing search for a new team:
The weight of expectations
From the moment Upton wowed scouts at Long Beach State's Blair Field as a 14-year-old shortstop at the 2002 Area Code Games, he was destined to be a prisoner of hype. Arizona drafted him No. 1 overall in 2005 and signed him to a record $6.1 million bonus, and he made it to the majors at age 19.
"The term 'five-tool prospect' doesn't seem strong enough for Upton," Baseball America wrote in 2007. "He does everything exceptionally well and already has the body and composure of a big leaguer."
BA's scouting report added that Upton "evokes comparisons to Ken Griffey Jr. in center field."
Fast-forward nine years, and Upton's top Baseball-reference.com comparables include Ruben Sierra, Larry Hisle, Jayson Werth, Adam Jones, Jason Bay, Preston Wilson and Carl Everett. While that's nice company, those names fail to elicit the spine-tingling euphoria that the early buzz heralded.
Since his first full season, Upton ranks eighth among MLB outfielders with 173 home runs and 12th in slugging percentage at .478 (minimum 2,500 plate appearances). But Upton's free agency comes with some caveats: Is he more a No. 5 hitter than a No. 3 hitter or classic cleanup man? How will his body type hold up as he ages? And if he adds more bulk, will that negatively affect his defense, which is not his strong suit?
Upton has spent the past three seasons playing at Turner Field and Petco Park, ballparks that are more favorable to pitchers than to hitters, in lineups that don't afford him much protection. But those qualifiers only do so much to temper the perception that he has failed to live up to the hype. He's in the mold of Eric Davis, who spent much of his career dogged by the realization that he wasn't "the next Willie Mays."
"The problem with Justin is other people's unrealistic expectations of Justin," a longtime MLB executive said. "He was the top pick in the country, and people expected this guy to be Superman throughout his career. They expected him to be a guy who hits 35 homers with 100-some RBIs and a high average every year, and honestly, I don't think he has that type of ability in him. Who does? It's pretty rare.
"Justin Upton is a very good player, but he's not Mike Trout day in and day out. He doesn't run like Trout. He throws OK for left field, but he can't play center. He has great leverage in his swing when he hits it, but he has areas that pitchers can exploit, so he's a streaky player. He's facing this image of a guy who should have been Ken Griffey, and he just doesn't have the same skill set or athleticism. People expect him to be able to leap tall buildings, and that just isn't realistic."
The Cubs' decision to give Heyward an eight-year, $184 million contract was based in part on the conclusion that he will be a difference-maker in the field.
Upton isn't nearly as stellar as a defender. But some of the negativity traces back to his time as a right fielder in Arizona, where he amassed the following numbers, according to Baseball Info Solutions:
2011: 23 good plays, 49 misplays and errors
2012: 19 good plays, 45 misplays and errors
Upton's 94 misplays and errors were the most in MLB over that two-year span. The biggest issues came in situations in which he'd reach a fly ball and it would bounce off his glove (23 times), mishandle a base hit (16 times) or exhibit a "failure to anticipate the wall" (10 times).
The advanced metrics have been kinder to Upton since he moved to left field three years ago. In 2013, Upton ranked 29th among MLB left fielders with a defensive runs saved of minus-7. Last year, he was sixth with a DRS of plus-8.
2013: 12 good plays, 22 misplays and errors
2014: 12 good plays, 33 misplays and errors
2015: 24 good plays, 26 misplays and errors
"I think he improved last year," said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, San Diego's outfield coach last season. "I think his arm strength and accuracy are underrated. Do I consider him an elite outfielder? Probably not. But with what he brings at the plate and his ability to go out there and play a solid left field, he definitely checks those boxes."
"The problem with Justin is other people's unrealistic expectations of Justin. He was the top pick in the country, and people expected this guy to be Superman throughout his career. They expected him to be a guy who hits 35 homers with 100-some RBIs and a high average every year, and honestly, I don't think he has that type of ability in him. Who does? It's pretty rare."A longtime MLB executive
As Gonzalez points out, with the exception of Alex Gordon, Starling Marte, Christian Yelich and a select few others, the left-field landscape is replete with players who are something less than world beaters with a glove.
"Justin's defense is better than what people say," Gonzalez said. "He was never a guy I felt like I had to take out of the game in the seventh inning. There are 25 or 26 left fielders in the big leagues who are worse than he is -- and he's driving in 100 [runs]."
The same Baseball America scouting report that raved about Upton's potential in 2007 also threw up some yellow caution flags.
"Several managers and scouts in the Midwest League didn't like Upton's attitude and effort," BA wrote. "They said he showed bad body language and often ran slowly to first, and they saw a few blowups in the dugout when he broke bats or got into arguments with his manager."
Is it fair to hold youthful indiscretions against players throughout their careers? Upton, by most accounts, has worked hard to maintain an even keel, yet now, he's being penalized for a different reason. He's soft-spoken and reserved by nature, and some talent evaluators equate that with a lack of passion. That perception was evident in November, when ESPN.com surveyed 34 front-office people and scouts, and 20 chose Heyward over Upton head-to-head.
"Heyward plays harder, and he affects the whole team by making others better with his [hard-nosed] defense and aggressive play," a National League scout said. Another personnel man called Upton a "tremendous talent" who "coasts" at times.
Those opinions aren't necessarily shared by Upton's former coaches and managers, who say he routinely runs out balls and plays with effort. Tellingly, Upton's 2015 season ended four games early when he almost knocked himself out chasing down a ball into the left-field corner. The Padres were 15 games out of first place in the National League West at the time.
If anything, Upton channels so much time and energy into his preparation, it has led to rumblings of selfishness in the scouting community. Then again, Tony Gwynn dealt with a similar rap while winning eight batting titles in San Diego.
"All players have high expectations for themselves, but Justin is a perfectionist," Roberts said. "Sometimes less is more. But I'd rather have a player who works too hard than not hard enough."
Upton is such a cage rat that former Atlanta hitting coach Greg Walker used to exhort him to take a breather at times because the obsessive soft tosses and tee work could work to his detriment.
"I remember Walk saying, 'I've gotta go. Justin is coming to the cage for the third time in the last two hours,'" Gonzalez said, laughing. "Walk would say, 'I've gotten Justin out of two slumps and put him back on three hot streaks in two hours.' Justin would hit nine out of 10 balls on the nose and then roll over the 10th one, and that meant another hour in the cage to make sure everything was right. He cares about his craft, and he wants to get better."
If the ultimate barometer of caring is taking the field, Upton's commitment is beyond dispute. Since 2011, he ranks 13th among MLB players with 762 games played. He's fifth among outfielders in that stretch, behind only Andrew McCutchen, Adam Jones, Ichiro Suzuki and Jay Bruce.
The Melvin factor
Upton's older brother, Melvin, has lapsed into a career death spiral since signing a five-year, $75 million deal with Atlanta in 2012. Has any of the negative industry sentiment rubbed off on his younger brother and created apprehension that Justin, too, might be a bad investment?
It would be a reach -- and patently unfair -- for any executive to make that connection. But a lot of Upton-watchers are convinced that it hasn't been in Justin's best interests to play on the same team with his struggling elder sibling.
Maybe it's pure coincidence, but last year, Justin got off to a strong start in San Diego, hitting .297 with an .870 OPS in his first 57 games. The Padres acquired Melvin in a trade with Atlanta in early April, but he didn't play his first game with the team until June 8 because of a foot injury. Immediately after his debut, Justin went into a slump and hit .179 with a .589 OPS for the duration of June and July.
"It bothers him when he's hitting 20-something home runs and his brother is hitting .180," said a baseball person who has spent time around both Uptons. "When you get three hits and everybody is booing your brother in center field for nine innings, it can be a tough day at work."
Gonzalez, for one, thinks the team that signs Upton will get its money's worth. During their time together in Atlanta, Gonzalez and Upton discovered they were both wine connoisseurs. If things work out in the end, the skipper will gladly collect some booty for his endorsement.
"I hope he gets a contract and reads this article, because I'll get a bottle of Pinot Noir from him," Gonzalez said. "If he gets [nine figures], at least I can get an $18 bottle of Pinot."
With five weeks left until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, it's too early to start popping corks and planning news conferences. Justin Upton's free-agent adventure has dragged on longer than anyone expected. There could be more waiting and some more anxious moments to come.