When the Padres acquired Craig Kimbrel last offseason, Padre fans were abuzz. Not only did the Padres get one of the best closers in all of baseball, but they also had made several trades to revamp a historically bad offense. The Padres did give up talent, and took on the contract of Melvin Upton Jr. that the Braves desperately wanted rid of, but nevertheless, Kimbrel was worth that price for A.J. Preller and company.
After just one year with the Padres, Craig Kimbrel finds himself with a new home for 2016: the Boston Red Sox. In return, the Padres got quite the haul, in prospects Manuel Margot, Javier Guerra, Carlos Asujae, and Logan Allen. Preller cashed in his most valuable trade chip, and did a great job replenishing a farm system depleted during the previous offseason.
Despite Kimbrel no longer being a Padre, the team is still “stuck” with a key part of that first Kimbrel trade: Melvin Upton. The Padres pretty obviously only agreed to take on Upton, and the remainder of his contract, as an added cost to acquiring the best reliever in baseball. Now the Padres are without Kimbrel, but still have Upton. A fact that quite a few Padre fans are quick to point out as a negative.
So far in his time with the Padres, Upton has gotten a pretty bad reputation among Padre fans. He’s been called terrible, lazy, a joke, complacent, and a host of other insults ranging from vulgar to downright nasty. Despite his struggles with the Atlanta Braves over the last few years, Upton does not deserve the negativity he gets on a daily basis.
Last year, Upton was more than respectable in his role, that of a fourth outfielder, playing only when necessitated by injury or need for rest. Based on Upton’s performance last year, he actually thrived in that role, despite what any of the negative attention would tell you.
After six above average to great years in Tampa Bay with the Devil Rays/Rays, Upton struggled mightily in his two years in Atlanta. Producing a negative WAR over two years with the team, in over 250 games played. He was hated by fans during his time in Atlanta. In turns out that a change of scenery was just what Upton needed for his career.
Despite still living in the shadow of his younger brother in San Diego last year, Upton thrived in his new role as a utility player. After recovering from an early season foot injury, Upton played in 87 games for the Padres, slashing .259/.327/.429, hitting 10% better than the league average by wRC+, and providing 1.6 WAR for the year, with positive performance at both the plate as well as in the field. All around Upton was more than respectable in his role as a backup outfielder, showing he still had usefulness on the Padres roster.
For some comparison, Matt Kemp, the much more loved and respected new Padres addition, actually did worse than Upton overall in 2015. Kemp slashed just .265/.312/.443 in 154 games in 2015, hitting 9% better than league average, and providing only 0.4 WAR, largely due to his disastrous defensive performance. Now Kemp obviously provided more overall offensive value than Upton, but one could argue Upton provided much more overall value to the team.
I am clearly not advocating for Kemp being benched in favor of Upton, but Kemp clearly is not met with the same level of vitriol that Upton deals with. Perhaps Upton is paid too much to be a utility player/fourth outfielder, but the stats show he performed well in that role, for better or for worse.
Melvin Upton has gotten a lot of criticism since coming to San Diego, some of it warranted. However, he has proven to everyone he can be effective in his role on the Padres roster, and can be an important part of the team going forward. His salary is obviously high, but that should not impact the evaluations of the player he is. Upton isn’t the perennial All Star and MVP candidate he was in Tampa Bay. But he can be an important part of the 2016 San Diego Padres.