Justin Upton or Yoenis Cespedes?

By: Brian Mangan

With Jason Heyward off the free agent market, General Managers of teams seeking to add power in the outfield are most likely weighing their options between Yoenis Cespedes and Justin Upton. Between the two, Cespedes is the much flashier option. But is he better than Upton, and does he stand to perform better over the course of the deal?

Alex Gordon is also an attractive free agent option, but he is a little older than the other two (Gordon is turning 32 in a month, while Cespedes is 30 and Upton is 28) and doesn’t offer the same kind of offensive profile.

This is likely the most interesting question still remaining in this year’s free agent market, so I decided to do a comparison. I used a 5-3-2 weighting of the three most recent seasons to come up with 2016 projections for both Cespedes and Upton. I then used that to do a Fangraphs $/WAR analysis to compare the two players. 

As I’ve said before, I don’t think that $/WAR analysis is much use when it comes to evaluating player contracts — but when two players are free agents at the same time, it can be illustrative to help compare the two.

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According to the standard projection, Cespedes comes out ahead, thanks to a friendly aging curve (Fangraphs recommends a decrease of only 0.25 WAR/season from age 31-37) and a high baseline for his performance thanks to his monster 2015. Nonetheless, Upton’s overall performance over a hypothetical six year deal is much closer (only a 5 WAR gap) than I think most people might have expected if you were simply comparing the “buzz” between the two.

The gap becomes even smaller if you believe players age a little less gracefully in their 30s. The following projection starts a decline of 0.40 WAR/year at age 31:

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Any number of assumptions can be made when it comes to players, but no matter how the figures are tweaked, a few things become clear. Both Cespedes and Upton are going to be underpaid under this rubric compared to the starting pitchers who have already signed this offseason (most notably, the David Price $217 million megadeal).

Consideration must also be made of each player’s skill sets and consistency. For instance, Yoenis Cespedes “can” play center field, at least according to some (not me), while Justin Upton is undoubtedly confined to a corner outfield spot. Point Cespedes. Another point in favor of Cespedes is the fact that he’s one of the best athletes in the game right now, while Justin Upton’s skill set is more one of “old man skills” that tend not to age quite as well.

On the other hand, Justin Upton has been extremely consistent over the last few years, hitting 27, 29, and 26 home runs and posting between 3.0 and 4.0 WAR each year. Contrast that with Cespedes who, aside from last year’s monster 6.7 WAR effort, had never before eclipsed 3.3 WAR in the major leagues and who failed to post an OBP above .301 either of the two years prior. Had this analysis been done prior to 2015, Cespedes’s WAR projection would be much more modest.

In fact, Cespedes’s 2016 Steamer projection is not one of a superstar. He is projected to hit only .266/.312/.473 and post 3.1 WAR, a far cry from the 4.8 WAR that a 5-3-2 projection offers him. Upton, on the other hand, is projected to post a superior offensive season, with a .260/.343/.467 batting line and 3.0 WAR.

I will share one final projection with you as food for thought in comparing the two outfielders. This projection splits the difference between our 5-3-2 projections and the Steamer projections, but uses Fangraphs’s aging curves. I’ve also increased the $/WAR to a level which I believe more accurately reflects the current state of salary inflation in MLB:

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These projections look right to me. Ultimately, we can expect Cespedes to be offered more money than Upton despite Upton’s advantage in youth, but the dollar values should be somewhat close. Cespedes’s athleticism should keep him productive through most of the contract, plus his upside coming off his 6.7 WAR season will tantalize at least one team into offering him a whole lot of money.

The Fangraphs Crowd expects Cespedes to get a 6 year, $132 million deal while Upton gets a 6 year, $120 million deal. MLB Trade Rumors predicts a longer deal for Upton, at 7 years and $147 million, but a higher average annual value for Cespedes, at 6 years and $140 million.

It will be interesting to see how it all shakes out, but I share MLBTR’s feeling that Cespedes will get a much better AAV than Upton. Forecasting a landing spot for these two players, however, is a lot murkier, but in the name of fun I will take a shot.

The Nationals window is closing and they were allegedly in on the Heyward Sweepstakes, so I can see them making a run at another outfielder. The Cardinals, another Heyward suitor, may also be in on the bidding, although reports today say that they are unlikely to make another big splash. Alex Gordon seems like a much more Cardinals-style player anyway. The Angels, Tigers, White Sox, Mets, Astros, Yankees Giants, and Orioles could be other landing spots for a big bat, but none of them are a perfect fit.

With the Giants having spent heavily on pitching, Colby Rasmus having accepted the Astros’s qualifying offer, and the Orioles likely to re-sign Chris Davis, the number of realistic suitors narrows considerably. The Angels get $50M off the payroll before 2017 (Weaver, Wilson) and don’t want to waste the window with Trout and Pujols. The Tigers are going for it and have backloaded the Zimmermann deal.

Justin Upton, Tigers, seven years and $150 million (with opt out).

Yoenis Cespedes, Angels, six years and $145 million.

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