TEMPE — Justin Upton and Ian Kinsler brought a combined 50 home runs to the Detroit Tigers in 2017. After a midseason and early offseason trade, the Los Angeles Angels are hoping the dynamic duo can bring some much needed pop to their lineup, too.
Last season, the Angels ranked second-to-last in the American League in home runs with a paltry 186. The New York Yankees, meanwhile, led the AL with 241. Upton and Kinsler will no doubt look to boost that number in the upcoming season, but they’ll bring a friendship and camaraderie they held in Detroit, as well.
Upton, an 11-year veteran and four-time All-Star, arrived in Anaheim a couple of months before Kinsler. He started his career with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and bounced between the Atlanta Braves, San Diego Padres and Tigers before he joined the Angels in an August trade. The left fielder hit a career-best 35 home runs last season, with a slash line that featured a .273 average, .361 on-base percentage and .901 OPS. Kinsler, who carries 12 years of experience and five All-Star appearances, also had a strong year as the Tigers’ leadoff hitter. He hit 22 home runs with a .236/.313/.725 slash line.
The two sluggers carried a synergy both on and off the field.
Just after the season ended, Kinsler posted a picture featuring himself and Upton in the middle of an Italian plaza, working on a couple of cigars. A little over a month later, Angels general manager Billy Eppler traded two prospects for the second baseman.
Despite the two traveling to another continent together, Kinsler claimed the trade didn’t materialize during that trip.
“I don’t think (Upton) really planted the idea, ever,” Kinsler said. “Last year when he got traded, we still talked quite a bit. He was just really happy with where he was at, as far as what the the organization is, what it stands for and the guys in the locker room. It’s just a really good atmosphere.”
Kinsler noted that seeing how much Upton enjoyed his 27 games with the Angels made him realize it was a team he wanted to be a part of. Kinsler waived his no-trade clause to join the team he had long tormented as a member of the Rangers.
The hard-hitting infielder has hit 22 home runs, nearly 10 percent of his career total, against the Angels. He’s hit more out of the park against his former division rival than any other team during his career. Angels fans have to feel a sense of relief that they won’t see Kinsler step into the batter’s box against their favorite team this season.
“I hope I can win Angels fans over,” Kinsler said. “It’s been awhile since I wore a Rangers uniform, but occasionally I still hear the random boos in LA when I would go up to hit. Hopefully, I can do whatever I can for this team to help them win.”
After spending the past four seasons of spring training in the Grapefruit League in Florida, Kinsler, a Tucson native, expressed some happiness in coming back to his home state.
“I don’t come back very often,” Kinsler said. “Any time you get to come back to where you were raised, it’s always fun. I’m very comfortable here, and it’s always nice to come home.”
Kinsler mentioned that although he lives in Dallas now, he’ll always have have Arizona in his blood. Upton, however, who has lived in Arizona for quite a few years and first played with the Diamondbacks when he was 19, doesn’t consider himself an Arizonan.
“I’m a Virginian at heart,” Upton said.
Although he maintains an allegiance to his home state, Upton said he appreciates Arizona because of the weather it offers during the off-season.
“I like being able to get outside during the off-season, and back in Virginia it gets a little chilly, so you don’t get out as much,” Upton said.
“Plus my wife is from here, so I didn’t have much of a choice,” he added, with a droll smirk.
After spending less than half a season with the Angels, Upton said he re-signed with the team because “it’s a good ballclub, and I think we have a chance to win.”
Upton signed a five-year, $106 million contract extension with the Angels that will keep him with the team through the 2022 season.
Upton said he did mention playing with Kinsler again when they were in Italy, but said when they talked, it was done somewhat jokingly.
“We didn’t know if it was a real possibility,” Upton said.
His reunion with a friend and former teammate could do wonders for a lineup that lacked offensive firepower when all-world center fielder Mike Trout was injured.
“At the end of the day, we ended up as teammates, which is really cool,” Upton said.