What Will the Padres Do With Melvin Upton?

Question no. 1: When Melvin Upton returns from his 50-plus at-bat minor league rehab assignment, what will the Padres do with him?

Why this question shouldn’t be answered: Upton plays center field, the same position where Wil Myers used to attempt to play — that is, until Myers moved to first base after Yonder Alonso hit the disabled list. Then Myers himself hit the DL, which left Will Venable (and sometimes Abraham Almonte) as the best option in center. In short, there’s four (or five) players for two positions, and each player’s health and productivity affects each of the others’ likely playing time. Way too much going on here.

The answer: Let’s just assume, for simplicity’s sake, that everyone comes back healthy in two or three weeks … who plays where?

Wait a second, that doesn’t simplify anything. That was supposed to simplify things.

Alonso’s probably the best option at first base, especially against right-handed pitching — but have you seen Myers in center? Sure, the numbers say he stinks out there, but you can wash that away with the ol’ “small sample sizes and defensive metrics don’t mix” argument. But have you seen him? I haven’t seen him in person, but through the magic lens of MLB.tv he doesn’t look so good — and it’s not just a buffering issue.

Alonso and Myers both fit this roster best as first basemen, but two first basemen isn’t good strategy, defensive shifts be damned. Barring extreme options that might, say, move Myers to third base or trade someone (okay, not so extreme with A.J. Preller around), the Padres likely put Myers back in center and leave Alonso at first, provided both return healthy.

Where does that leave Upton? Well, it likely leaves him on the bench most nights, which is probably where he belongs. (We’re not even going to discuss Upton vs. Venable vs. Almonte, because we’re trying desperately to keep this under 1,000 words.)

Upton was once a fine player, but he hasn’t been one for a while now. He hasn’t posted a WAR on the good side of 0.0 since 2012. He’s coming off an injury. He’s older — just 30, but still … older. Here are a few other things we noted about Upton in this Craig Kimbrel trade analysis:

  • Melvin Upton is a lot like Cameron Maybin, except he’s older, he’s worse, and he’s a lot more expensive.
  • In February, Jonah Keri ranked Upton’s remaining contract — three years and $46.4 million — as the third-worst deal in all of baseball, less bad than only Matt Harrison‘s and A-Rod’s.
  • He once looked like a future superstar, leveled off as a useful player in his mid-twenties, then finally cratered as he neared 30. He still has some value as a defense-first outfielder and base running threat, and as a potential change-of-scenery rebound candidate.

The argument to play Upton frequently might come down to that contract, which pays him $15.05 million this season and nearly $32 million over the following two years. That kind of contract doesn’t ride the pine every day, at least not in a mid-market town like San Diego. Heck, that kind of contract doesn’t often start every day in San Diego, because, well, you know where I’m going with that one. (Upton’s being paid just a touch more than little brother Justin in 2015, which, if you count the money coming over from LA to pay for part of Matt Kemp‘s salary, makes him the highest paid Padre.)

But here’s the thing: Upton’s contract alone is no reason to play him. Handing out that deal was a mistake made by the Atlanta Braves two and a half years ago, and the Padres don’t need to compound that mistake by running Upton out there if he’s hurting their team, hoping to find some semblance of what the Braves saw back in 2012. Ya’ know, sunk costs and all. Upton was just the guy that allowed the Padres to pick up Kimbrel (while shedding the contracts of Carlos Quentin and Maybin) without having to give up an even greater haul of prospects than Matt Wisler/Jordan Paroubeck.

And if the Padres want to play Upton to showcase him for a future trade of their own, they’d probably be better off just biting the bullet like the Braves did, including Upton in a package with another player(s) some team actually wanted. At this point, when most of Preller’s moves have been geared toward short-term success (like the Austin Hedges call-up, for a recent example), it’d be silly for the Padres to willingly do something that hurts the 2015 team’s chances.

With all of that said, Upton still has his uses, especially on a roster that employs a trio of defensively-challenged outfielders. While Upton is no Juan Lagares clone in the outfield, UZR pegged him as a league average-ish center fielder in each season from 2010 through 2014 (DRS isn’t quite as high on him). He’s also been consistently rated as a net positive on the base paths, both by Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs. Even if Upton’s batting average has found permanent residence on the Mendoza Line, he has some measure of value on this Padres team as a defensive replacement, pinch runner, and occasional spot starter.

The TL;DR answer: Upton hasn’t been very good at baseball in at least three years, and the Padres, assuming they have better, healthy alternatives, shouldn’t play him just because he’s making a lot of money. Despite his recent offensive struggles, Upton retains value because of his speed-based skills, assuming age and injury haven’t eroded them too significantly, but he’s probably best-suited as an expensive bench player on this roster.

Why that answer probably stinks: Baseball is hard/I don’t know what I’m talking about. Pencil in Upton as your early Comeback Player of the Year favorite — and if it happens, say you heard it here first.

Question no. 2: There is no question no. 2. Question no. 1 went way longer than anticipated.

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