LAKELAND, Fla. — It has been suggested that switching leagues is no longer a big deal, especially since Major League Baseball instituted interleague play in 1997, then merged the American and National League umpires into one unit in 2000.
However, don’t try telling that to Detroit Tigers left fielder Justin Upton. Not after the struggles he endured in 2016 during his first year in the AL after spending the first nine seasons of his career in the NL.
“It’s easy for people to say it if they haven’t done it,” Upton said at the Tigers’ spring training camp. “It’s hard, though. Harder than you think. I had to learn a whole new set of pitchers, a lot of guys who I either never faced before or maybe just one or two times in my career. It was definitely an adjustment.”
Upton got off to a dreadful start after signing a six-year, $132.75 million contract the previous offseason as a free agent. In 48 games through the end of May, was batting .217/.264/.326 with three homers with 72 strikeouts in 197 plate appearances.
“It was tough but the thing that kept me from getting too down about it is that we were winning,” Upton said. “If we were losing, I think I would have really felt some pressure. The thing that kept me going is that I knew things couldn’t get any worse. I had nowhere to go but up.”
Upton started to heat up in June, then had a strong second half in which he batted .260/.337/.579 with 22 home runs in 68 games. He finished the season with a .246/.310/.465 line and 31 homers in 153 games.
While it wasn’t an All-Star-caliber season, it was good enough for the Tigers to not second-guess making such a large investment in Upton.
“It was tough for Justin early last year,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. “Switching leagues is always tough and he had that new contract. Regardless of what guys say, I think there is always a little added pressure when you sign a big contract. I’m sure Justin was trying to show everyone he was worth it.
“But we knew they type of player we were getting. You can just see that he fits in a lot better this year. He’s a lot more relaxed, a lot more confident. You can see it in his demeanor and by the way he’s performing on the field.”Upton is used to being in the spotlight.
The Arizona Diamondbacks selected him first overall in the 2005 amateur draft and he made his major-league debut two years later as a 19-year-old. He hit .271/.352/.473 over his nine seasons in the NL with the Diamondbacks, Atlanta Braves and San Diego Padres while averaging 27 home runs per 162 games.
Upton expects to raise his statistics back up to his NL level in his second year in the AL, especially hitting in a lineup that was ninth in the major leagues in runs scored last season with an average of 4.66 per game.
He will be in a prime position to do some damage, hitting in the No. 5 hole behind second baseman Ian Kinsler, right fielder J.D. Martinez, first baseman Miguel Cabrera and designated hitter Victor Martinez.
“This lineup is so much fun because we have some many accomplished hitters,” Upton said. “If one guy has a bad day, someone else is there to pick him up. You don’t feel that the pressure to do it all yourself.”
Upton learned that as last season went on. Now, he’s excited for his second year in Detroit.
It is also an important year from a personal standpoint as Upton can opt out of his contract following the season, though he would be walking away from a guaranteed $88.5 million.
“All I’m worried about now is having a good season and helping us get to the playoffs,” said Upton, aware the Tigers have missed the postseason in back-to-back years since winning four American League Central titles in a row. “The rest will take care of itself. I’m just excited about this season.
“I’m very confident I’m going to carry over how I finished up last year into this year.”