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Justin Upton Is the Sidekick Mike Trout Needs to Get the Angels to the Playoffs

Acquiring the left fielder increases L.A.’s chances of making the postseason for only the second time in the Trout era

Detroit Tigers v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

It’s a red-letter day in Orange County, as the Los Angeles Angels have acquired Justin Upton from the Detroit Tigers for minor league pitcher Grayson Long and a low-level player to be named later. The Angels then sent Cameron Maybin to the Astros for cash.

This is Mike Trout’s seventh major league season, and in that time, the Angels have made one playoff appearance, in which they failed to even win a game. Acquiring Upton gives the Angels, who currently sit a game out of the second wild card, a good shot at making another trip to the postseason.

Upton, who just turned 30, is in the midst of his best offensive season since his days with the Diamondbacks: He’s hitting .279/.362/.542 with 28 home runs, which puts him on pace for career highs in home runs and SLG, and to end up within 10 points of his career-best OBP. Upton would represent an upgrade in left field for most teams, including the Angels, whose left fielders (mostly Maybin, Ben Revere, and Eric Young Jr.) have combined to hit just .244/.315/.341. Upton also provides an impact bat for a team that came into Thursday with only three active position players with an average-or-better OPS+: Trout, Andrelton Simmons, and C.J. Cron, whose 106 OPS+ as a first baseman doesn’t exactly make him Joey Votto.

In return, the Tigers get pitcher Grayson Long, a 2015 third-rounder out of Texas A&M. Long is a big (6-foot-5, 230 pounds) right-hander who’s pitched well in Double-A this year, with a 2.52 ERA and 8.2 K/9 in 23 starts. But Long has never been a big-name prospect: At best, he’s in the back half of the top 10 in an Angels system that pales in comparison to other organizations. Only the Marlins have so little minor league talent. Long might be a no. 5 starter, but it’s unlikely he turns into much more.

The key to this trade is Upton’s contract. Upton could opt out of his deal after this season, and at 30 years old and coming off a big offensive year, he probably will. If the Tigers had held onto Upton and he’d opted out, they wouldn’t have been able to tag him with a qualifying offer under the new CBA, since the Padres qualified Upton after the 2015 season. Since the Tigers have somehow managed to fall out of the wild-card race, picking up Long and shedding a couple of million dollars in salary for the rest of the year is better than literally nothing.

If Upton doesn’t opt out, the remaining $88.5 million on his deal over four years will look like a bargain to the Angels, who have Trout, Simmons, and not a lot else in the lineup as they’re trying to wring a title out of Trout before he hits free agency after the 2020 season. It would look like far less a bargain to the rebuilding Tigers, who could put that money to better use—though in all likelihood they’ll just be a slightly cheaper bad team, which works out just fine for the Ilitch family, if not for the public at large.

Dumping Maybin on Houston helps offset Upton’s cost to the Angels—Maybin is making $9 million this year, and he’d be hard-pressed to break into an outfield of Upton, Trout, and Kole Calhoun. What’s less obvious is what he does for the Astros, because while Maybin is tied for the American League lead in stolen bases with 29 and can help defensively, there’s nothing he does well that Jake Marisnick can’t do, and Marisnick is a much better hitter. On the other hand, all the Astros are giving up here is money, and with rosters expanding on Friday, there’s room for the Astros to shell out for a guy to be Carlos Beltrán’s legs for the month of September.

The Astros can afford to fiddle around the edges right now, since they’ve all but locked up a playoff spot. The real action is back in the wild-card race, where the Angels just took a big step toward locking up a playoff spot of their own.