Up, Up and a Hey

January 27, 2013


After two and a half years of talking about it, Arizona Diamondbacks Kevin Towers has finally traded Justin Upton.  However, the biggest question surrounding the move from all quarters ever since the prospect of trading him was originally broached is “why?”  Why would a GM want to trade a player who just turned 25 years old, who has been in the majors since he was 19, who scouts say has as much upside as any player in baseball, who finished 4th in the MVP voting in 2011 as a 24-year old, who has cost control with a very reasonable contract for the next three years (the Braves will play less for Upton than the Red Sox will pay for the declining years of Shane Victorino)… why would any GM want to trade that guy… for anything?  Upton is the type of player that winning teams are built around, not some complimentary part that successful teams find fungible.


Well, the reason that is often cited by those familiar with the Diamondbacks is that Upton didn’t possess the urgency and passion to maximize his potential.  Yes, he’s talented but according to the rumors he had little interest in achieving it.  It’s an interesting point of view because there is no way to prove or disprove it.  I would offer that Upton’s “down” year last year was largely due to a thumb injury he suffered in the spring and played through the whole season.  But apparently that’s not gutty enough for Towers and manager Kirk Gibson.  This then amounts to a kind of challenge trade for Upton.  There wasn’t any evidence that he was going to play with the kind of fire that the front office wanted to see from him as long as he was in Arizona, but a change of scenery, especially to play alongside his brother, might be the ingredient necessary to push his fire into blaze mode. 


Let’s look at what they traded away and what they got in return.  The number of players in major league history who have hit 100 home runs and stolen 80 bases before turning 26 years old is a fairly small and impressive group: 


Alex Rodriguez

Frank Robinson

Ken Griffey Jr

Orlando Cepeda

Andruw Jones

Jose Canseco

Willie Mays

Darryl Strawberry

David Wright

Vada Pinson

Cesar Cedeno

Barry Bonds

Grady Sizemore

Justin Upton

Hanley Ramirez

Bobby Bonds


Not a bad group to be part of, but there are also number of players who fell short of what people thought they’d achieve.  That’s not to disparage what they did; more to show how hard it is to become an all-time great.  Cesar Cedeno is a perfect example.  He was regarded as the next Willie Mays early in his career but playing in the Astrodome didn’t help, nor did flaming out by the time he was 26.  Sparky Anderson once said that Vada Pinson was one of the most physically talented players he ever saw, and this is a manager who guided Joe Morgan and Kirk Gibson so he knows something about that.  But Pinson never developed into anything more than a really good player.   So making it a given that Justin Upton will eventually become a Hall of Famer isn’t really looking at history.  He certainly has the gifts, but only time will tell.


The potential is exciting for Atlanta.  They’ll field one of the most athletic outfields ever assembled.  There has never been an outfield that comprised of three 30 homer/30 steal players.  In fact, 20/20 by three players on a team has only happened a couple times (the 1988 Mets and the 2009 Phillies).   None have done it all in the outfield.  The closest any teams have come is the 1995-1996 Cardinals with Bernard Gilkey, Brian Jordan and Ray Lankford, and the 1985 Blue Jays with Jesse Barfield, Lloyd Moseby and George Bell.  The 1987 Mets had two players hit 30/30 (Howard Johnson and Darryl Strawberry) and that’s the only time any team has had more than one such player.  It should be noted, however, that last year’s Washington Nationals came very close to joining the Mets and Phillies with a trio of 20/20 players last year with Bryce Harper, Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond (Espinosa fell 3 homers short).  A healthy Jayson Werth this year gives them a legitimate chance to have four such players. 


However, the Braves outfield has a chance to improve on that.  Justin Upton has already had a season in which he hit 31 homers and twice he’s topped 20 steals.  Last year, his brother BJ achieved a career high with 28 homers and he’s topped 30 steals every year for the last 5 years including three times better than 40.  And Jason Heyward set his career bests last year with 27 homers and 21 steals.  Justin is only 25.  BJ is only 28.  Jason is only 23.  Two of the three have yet to reach their prime and none of them are in the decline phase of their career and they are all basically guaranteed (barring a trade) to be with the Braves for the next three years.  So not only could they all go 30/30 for the first time in baseball history, but they could possibly do it multiple times. 


Will the trade be worth it for the Diamondbacks?  Possibly.   They were able to address a couple of urgent needs, mainly a complete player at third base with Martin Prado, plus a power-armed groundball starting pitcher in Randall Delgado.   Prado also has the ability to play multiple positions well so if the Diamondbacks can get him signed for a few years they have some flexibility as to how they will continue building their team.  Prado is an excellent complimentary piece as he does many things well but he doesn’t do anything spectacularly well, nor does he have that kind of potential the way Upton does.  And even though they traded Trevor Bauer away, they still have an impressive collection of young pitchers and Delgado fits nicely into that mix. 


Does this trade make the Braves the favorite in the NL East?  Hardly.  It does give them a power advantage in the outfield over any of their NL East counterparts, and range-wise defensively they’re as good as anyone.  I would give the Nats a slight advantage in outfield arm-strength, though.  But in the infield and in starting pitching the Nats have a decided advantage.  At all five infield positions they have either a clear advantage or a wash with the glove, and overall they have more home run power and a better rate of contact.   A technical look at each of the changes reveals that the Braves closed the gap but it still favors Washington.  Last year the Braves’ team OPS+ was 90; the Nats was 102.  That’s a lot of ground to make up.  BJ Upton posted a 109 last year and has a 105 for his career.  Justin was 107 last year, 117 for his career.  However, they are replacing Martin Prado (114 last year) and Michael Bourn (99).  Meanwhile, the Nats are replacing Michael Morse (112 last year, 126 career) with Denard Span (105 last year, 104 career).  Defensively, the Braves outfield probably stays the same while the Nats give up some offense in favor of a substantial improvement on defense.   Additionally, the Braves are replacing Chipper Jones (124 OPS+) with a Chris Johnson/Juan Francisco platoon at third base (108/88 OP+).   And the Nationals will get a full season of Wilson Ramos/Kurt Suzuki (105/67 OPS+) behind the plate as opposed to Jesus Flores/Kurt Suzuki (55/67 OPS+).  


The Nats still hold the advantage in pitching, too.  Kris Medlen was sensational over the second half of last season but he’s 27, part of his success was luck driven and he has no track record of that level of performance.   He grades out as a very good pitcher but an all-time ace?  No way.  Conversely, Strasburg is 24, yet to enter his peak and he has nothing but a track record of historic performance.  After Medlen, the Braves have Tim Hudson, Brandon Beachy coming back from surgery perhaps in June, journeyman Paul Maholm and Mike Minor, none of whom grade out as anything more than a #3.  The Nats on the other hand, have Gio Gonzalez whose physical tools are on par with other fantastic short lefties like Johan Santana.  Barring a physical problem or some further development in the Bosch scandal, he’s at least a #2 and in many rotations a #1.  Jordan Zimmermann is easily a #2, Detwiler has #2 stuff and on top of that they have Dan Haren who, with the exception of last year, has been one of the best starters in baseball for a better part of a decade.   The Braves have a slight advantage with their bullpen but both teams have very high quality for the last three innings of a game and the difference between the rest of the relief corps comes down to splitting hairs and picking nits. 


The trade was definitely one the Braves had to make, particularly since they did not surrender any of their most highly regarded prospects, and it could turn out well for the Diamondbacks as well as they filled two needs without creating a new one.  However, this has a chance to be one of those deals like the one that sent Frank Robinson to Baltimore, or Lou Brock to St. Louis.  Sure, one can find some logic for both sides, but only one side in this deal is getting the player with historic upside.  In essence, Atlanta’s GM Frank Wren was not risking anything by trading spare parts, while Kevin Towers was taking a huge risk in possibly finding himself on the wrong side of history.