The SF Giants added a prospect by taking on a big Los Angeles Angels contract last offseason. Could they do the same this year with Justin Upton?
After hiring Perry Minasian as their general manager, the Los Angeles Angels are once again likely to look at the top of the free-agent market, according to a report by Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic (subscription required). However, team ownership, led by Arte Moreno, appears unlikely to allow the team to make another splash without unloading another substantive salary. With that in mind, Rosenthal wrote that the team might have a decision to make.
"The Angels figure to at least dabble in the top of the market — Trevor Bauer in free agency, Blake Snell in trade. One way to clear money and add pitching might be to package outfielder Justin Upton with a prospect — say, outfielder Brandon Marsh. Billy Eppler, the team’s previous GM, purged Zack Cozart’s remaining $12.67 million by sending him to the Giants with middle-infield prospect Will Wilson."
As Rosenthal mentions, the SF Giants could use their financial might to acquire prospect Will Wilson in exchange for taking on Cozart’s contract and pitching prospect Garrett Williams. While a new general manager is in charge, could Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi try to pull off a similar move once again by taking on Justin Upton‘s contract?
Upton is owed $51 million over the next two seasons, a far more massive sum than the $12.67 million the Giants took on in the Cozart deal. Of course, Angels prospect Brandon Marsh, who Rosenthal suggests as the enticement for any team taking on Upton’s guarantees, is a far more advanced prospect than Wilson was last season. Another complicating factor is evaluating what Upton’s true value is at this point in his career. While injuries led Cozart to miss most of the 2019 and 2020 seasons, Upton has been a below-average everyday player. The Giants may be able to turn around and swap Upton to another team willing to take on a small amount of the salary, lowering the cost.
In 2020, Upton got off to a horrendous start to the season, batting .094 in his first 18 games. However, he finished the year with a more palatable .204/.289/.422 triple-slash. While not quite a league-average line, there were some positive takeaways. Upton struck out at his lowest rate (25.9%) since 2015 while generating his best average exit-velocity (91.7 mph) over the same time frame. Furthermore, his career-low .219 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) suggests he performed better than his final line indicates. Still, Upton would not be the prize of any deal.
Drafted in the second round of the 2016 draft out of high school, Marsh has emerged as a top-40 prospect in baseball, per numerous outlets. While a couple of years older than SF Giants prospect Heliot Ramos, Marsh is far enough ahead in his development to make them comparable prospects. Both have the potential to hit for plus power, but Ramos’ more consistently plays in games. Marsh, though appears more likely to be a solid defensive centerfielder and has consistently generated walks at a good rate while hitting for higher averages. In 2019, Marsh hit .300/.383/.428 at Double-A before tearing up the Arizona Fall League. In 75 plate appearances, he bashed 8 extra-base hits and hit .328/.387/.522 with just a 20% strikeout rate and 9.3% walk rate.
Following a surprisingly competitive 2020 season, the question for the Giants is how much money are they willing to spend for someone like Marsh. Between Ramos and a number of other outfield prospects, the organization appears to have exceptional depth at the position. At the same time, Marsh appears closer to being a big-league contributor than any of the Giants’ top outfield prospects right now.
Upton will be 34-years old next August and has shown his age defensively. Without a renaissance to the premium bat he once was, it’s hard to see Upton getting at-bats over plays like Austin Slater or even Darin Ruf in left field for the Giants. Without a fit on the big-league roster, the Giants would either have to view his entire contract as a sunk cost or be willing to eat a large portion of it to save a bit by sending him to an American League team. For example, the Giants could acquire Upton and Marsh for cash or a player to be named later and immediately ship Upton to a team looking for a low-risk DH, like the Tampa Bay Rays, who might agree to pay $4 million a year of his contract for a player to be named later of their own. If that could be arranged, the Giants would essentially be paying $43 million to acquire Marsh.
How much is Brandon Marsh worth? That ultimately comes down to each individual’s evaluation of his future. If Giants execs view his ceiling is as a solid everyday player with a propensity to walk and put up solid .750 OPS annually, like Dexter Fowler, the price might be too steep. However, if his future could sustain the ceiling Brandon Nimmo has flashed with the Mets, producing a .400 on-base percentage and .480 slugging percentage with solid center field defense, it becomes easier to envision them taking on a massive contract like Upton’s.
The SF Giants added one of their better infield prospects last offseason by taking on a contract from the Los Angeles Angels. Now a year later, the Angels appear poised to spend again this offseason and might want to make a similar deal. The Giants may want to be more aggressive in helping their big-league team, but outfield prospect Brandon Marsh would immediately rank among their best prospects. The question is, would they be willing to take on Justin Upton’s contract to do it?