Detroit Tigers Finally Getting What They Paid for in Justin Upton

Justin Upton has struggled for most of his first season with the Detroit Tigers, but over the last couple weeks he’s looked like a completely different player. Just in time for the team’s postseason push.

The Detroit Tigers‘ signing of Justin Upton looked like one of the real blunders of last offseason, but the outfielder has been doing his best to salvage his disappointing campaign over the past two and a half weeks. Heading into action on August 20, he owned a lackluster .226/.281/.371 slash line while managing a modest 13 home runs and 46 RBI.

That’s certainly not the production the Tigers envisioned after inking him to a six-year, $132.75 million contract back in January. In fact, Upton’s older brother Melvin Upton Jr. (the artist formerly known as B.J.) was largely outperforming him (17 HR, 50 RBI, .706 OPS on 8/20), a reality not many would have predicted at the start of the season.

Fortunately for Detroit, J-Up has found his hitting shoes. Since August 20, he is slashing a ferocious .339/.413/.839. He’s rediscovered his power stroke as well, clubbing eight homers and driving in 21 runs over his last 15 games. His most recent round-tripper was a three-run blast that secured a 5-3 victory yesterday over the Chicago White Sox in the 11th inning.

Upton’s renaissance has come at the perfect time for the Tigers, too. Embroiled in the crowded American League playoff race, Detroit has won 11 of its last 14 games, neatly coinciding with their left fielder’s hot streak. They have pulled into a tie with the Baltimore Orioles for the second Wild Card spot with 25 games to go.

The Tigers signed Upton with the hope that he would be a key piece of their lineup, joining the likes of Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez and Ian Kinsler to make for a very robust batting order. While many of those players are having fine seasons individually and the Tigers offense ranks sixth in MLB in OPS (.766), they have been somewhat less impressive in terms of actually putting runs on the board, ranking 12th with a total of 637. Since the All-Star break, Detroit ranks 18th in runs scored (211).

If Upton had contributed more in the earlier months of the season, the Tigers may be fighting for more than a Wild Card berth right now. Though their 4.5-game deficit behind the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central is by no means insurmountable, the Tribe have been playing well of late too and seem poised to capture the division crown.

Regardless, Detroit will readily accept a late resurgence rather than none at all from their big free agent signing. And the cause of his turnaround may have been a perfectly timed sabbatical mandated by manager Brad Ausmus. The Tigers skipper kept the struggling Upton out of the starting lineup for three straight days last month in an effort to help him “hit the reset button.” When the left fielder returned to full-time duty on August 20, his current blitz began.

While it will be difficult for Upton to maintain his current pace, he’s not guaranteed to fall off a cliff either. Before August 20, he was working a standard .300 BABIP. Since then, his BABIP has been .324 – above average, but definitely not absurd either. As long as he doesn’t get back into the kind of rut he was in for much of the season, the Tigers will benefit.

Of course, there is another reason Detroit will cross its fingers that Upton’s improved form continues aside from the obvious on-field results. He can opt out of his contract following the 2017 season, at which point he’ll be 30 years old. If he’s playing well, he might elect free agency in hopes of landing more than his $22,125,000 annual salary on the open market. If he’s faltering, he’ll gladly stay with his current deal and the Tigers will be stuck paying a healthy sum to a declining player.

But right now, Upton and the Tigers are focusing on the final month of the 2016 season. Detroit signed the three-time All-Star to help them win this year, and right now he’s doing that. If all goes according to plan, he’ll be helping them do it in October as well.

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