Why No One Is Declaring Arizona the Winner of the Justin Upton Trade

Justin Upton

The Atlanta Braves acquired Justin Upton from the Arizona Diamondbacks Thursday, sending away five players and also the timid approach to roster building that had limited the Braves to not-quite-good-enough status in recent years.

Upton and veteran third baseman Chris Johnson will head to Atlanta in the deal. In return, Arizona acquired Martin Prado, a productive infielder/outfielder who’ll play third for the D-backs, along with 22-year-old right-hander Randall Delgado and three minor leaguers: Nick Ahmed, Zeke Spruill, and Brandon Drury.

A year ago around this time, we lamented the Braves’ conservative spending and trading tendencies, and how it seemed the front office and the Braves’ corporate owner, Liberty Media, were content to build teams that were good, but not quite World Series contenders.

In the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa, locals practice a unique kind of diet. It’s called hara hachi bu, which roughly means, “eat until you’re 80 percent full.” Sounds both logical and awful, right? Okinawans eat less than people in Western societies, and also live longer. And forget 100 percent — we slam two helpings of turkey smothered in gravy, three plates of stuffing and sweet potatoes, and four kinds of pie every Thanksgiving, then feel like garbage afterwards. But dammit, it tastes good, and it’s our right to stuff ourselves silly and destroy our health and waist lines. Hara hachi bu might make sense on paper, but it hasn’t caught on in most other first-world nations.

The Braves are the Okinawans of Major League Baseball. Sure, plenty of teams run much lower payrolls and keep draft spending in check. But those teams do so because they’re poor by MLB standards. The Braves are not. They’re a mid-market team not far removed from one of the greatest runs of success any team has seen in half a century. But where previous owner Time Warner bankrolled one of the top payrolls in the game, Liberty Media has clamped down on spending, with the Braves ranking a modest 15th at $87 million last season. They could probably spend more money and still turn a profit. They choose not to. Meanwhile, the new collective bargaining agreement’s restrictions on draft spending should have zero effect on the Braves. They were one of very few teams that stuck to slot recommendations every year. In fact, Braves president John Schuerholz was a driving force behind the new spending caps and the penalties that result from going over those caps. The Braves continue to pump out great players, using superior scouting in the draft and on the international market to bring in new generations of exciting talent. But in a division that features a new, big-spending superpower in the Phillies, that hasn’t been enough, with just one playoff berth and no division titles for Atlanta in the past six years.

The Braves didn’t make any blockbuster moves for the rest of last winter, either. But big improvements from Jason Heyward and others, along with modest upgrades such as Paul Maholm, did push the team to a 94-win season and its second wild-card berth in three seasons, before a loss in the wild-card elimination game against the Cardinals. Still, the Braves have now gone seven years without winning the NL East after claiming 14 of 15 division titles. With the Nationals shooting to the top of the division led by one of baseball’s most dynamic collections of young talent, and Braves fans still waiting for the signature, go-for-it move that might signal a real challenge to Washington’s ascendance, an eighth straight season of settling seemed to be imminent.

Trading five players to get Justin Upton marks the end of settling, a farewell to hara hachi bu. Per ESPN Stats & Info, only six National League outfielders have topped Upton’s .842 OPS over the past five seasons. In the past four seasons, the only NL outfielders to top Upton’s 16.7 Wins Above Replacement are Ryan Braun, Matt Holliday, Andrew McCutchen, Michael Bourn, and Matt Kemp. Upton is coming off a down year, one in which he hit a modest .280/.355/.430 while plagued by a thumb injury that wrecked the first month and a half of his season. But just a year earlier, he hit .289/.369/.529, smashing 75 extra-base hits, stealing 21 bases, and producing more than six wins for his team. A 25-year-old outfielder who’s already posted those kinds of numbers and is signed for three more years at an attractive price of $38 million should qualify as one of the most valuable trade commodities in the game. Given his pedigree, his age, the prospects for future healthy seasons, and the numbers he’s already put up, there’s a good chance we haven’t yet seen the best of Justin Upton.

Upton’s acquisition gives the Braves one of baseball’s most dynamic outfields. Joining him will be Heyward, who smashed 27 homers, stole 21 bases, played Gold Glove–caliber defense, and ran the bases better than almost anyone else in baseball during the season in which he turned 23. The Braves’ other big offseason move was Justin’s older brother B.J., who signed the biggest free-agent contract in franchise history when he agreed to come to Atlanta for five years and $75 million. The elder Upton has confounded those who’ve watched him over the course of his career. The no. 2 overall pick in the 2002 amateur draft (he should have been no. 1, but the Pirates went for an affordability pick instead, bragging that their selection, Bryan Bullington, had the upside of a no. 3 starter), B.J. cracked the big leagues as a 19-year-old shortstop way back in 2004. Converted to center field soon afterward, he posted his two best offensive seasons in his first two full seasons, flashing wOBAs of .386 and .351 in 2007 and 2008. Since then, he’s become a high-strikeout, low-to-moderate on-base threat known for overthrowing cutoff men, blunders on the basepaths, and generally not getting the most out of his prodigious talent. ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick tweeted that the Braves are counting on both players benefiting from the presence of the other in the same outfield. I don’t have anything analytical to add to that claim, other than that B.J. Upton’s only 28 himself, and he’s already a three- or four-win player even when he frustrates the world.

Though the Braves made a clear go-for-it deal in which they got the most talented player, the trade does raise some concerns — some legitimate, some less so.

First, there’s the matter of strikeouts. Only six teams posted higher strikeout rates in 2012 than the Braves did, and the Upton brothers combined for 290 whiffs last season, meaning you should probably expect a strikeout bonanza in Atlanta this year. While it’s true that on a granular level having a lineup full of whiffers might limit a few strategic options, players like Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, and others have shown they can be extremely productive even after accounting for all those strikeouts. In other words, while it’s not exactly right to say a strikeout is no worse than any other out, in the grand scheme of things, once you balance the lack of “productive” outs against a team hitting into fewer double plays, everything more or less evens out.

Second, there’s Justin Upton’s defense. The Fielding Bible tracks a stat called Defensive Misplays that measures mistakes by fielders above and beyond what excessively generous official scorers will count. Adding up Defensive Misplays and errors, Upton led all major league right fielders with 45 miscues last season (Hunter Pence was a distant second at 38). Despite being mistake-prone, Upton has also shown superior range, with advanced defensive stats such as Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saves rating him an above-average fielder in his five-plus years in the big leagues.

Third, we have Upton’s home/road splits. For his career, Upton’s hit a huge .307/.389/.548 at home, but just .250/.325/.406 on the road. Terrifying, right? As Dave Cameron recently wrote, this shouldn’t be cause for panic. Any types of splits, even over multi-year samples of time, require some consideration of regression toward the mean. In the case of NL and AL West players, we should also consider the huge differences between some of the most- and least-friendly parks for hitters — Coors and Petco in the same division, or Arlington and Safeco — which can wreak havoc with numbers depending on where a player toiling in one of those divisions calls home. It’s certainly possible that Upton’s numbers slip a bit away from hitter-friendly Chase Field. But as Cameron’s analysis explains, we really shouldn’t go nuts about it.

One concern that should truly bother Braves fans, on the other hand, is the team’s third-base situation. Even at age 40, in his final year in the majors, Chipper Jones still hit .287/.377/.455, making him a three-win player despite missing 50 games and producing below-average results both in the field and on the basepaths. Atlanta had hoped to acquire an outfielder in trade, which would then allow Martin Prado to shift to third base and make up for Jones’s retirement. With Prado gone to Arizona in the trade, the Braves are looking at a combination of Chris Johnson and Juan Francisco at third. Johnson’s one of the worst glovemen in the league at third, and a roughly league-average bat, hitting .276/.315/.430 in 334 career games. Francisco’s had just 386 plate appearances in his short career, in that time showing a horrific batting eye, with 121 strikeouts against just 22 walks. Though the Braves could benefit from a quasi-platoon (Johnson hits right-handed, Francisco lefty), it’s tough to imagine the pair ranking much above the bottom of the league for overall production this season. Even if you assume regression for Prado after a big 2012 season (for one thing, his defensive numbers have looked much better in left field than at third base, where he figured to play this year), a Johnson-Francisco duo still counts as a downgrade.

Then there’s this: With Michael Bourn, Prado, and Jones all gone from last year’s roster, the Braves lost three of their best players, and it’s entirely possible — even probable — that the Uptons and Chris Johnson constitute an overall downgrade compared to what last year’s trio produced. The starting rotation remains questionable, with Brandon Beachy out until at least June, Kris Medlen a big, flashing regression candidate after his 12-start Greg Maddux impression last year, and young arms such as Mike Minor and Julio Teheran being expected to deliver significant results.

Still, in making this deal, the Braves acknowledged they needed to do something bold to get better. They acquired a potential franchise player without giving up an elite prospect or an irreplaceable piece of their existing roster. Six months ago, Randall Delgado appeared headed to the Cubs as the key piece of a trade for rent-a-vet starter Ryan Dempster. Now he’s off to Arizona as the most notable arm in a trade for Justin Upton. In baseball parlance, we call that a big freaking win.

Though the best player in the trade went to another team, it’s possible that Justin Upton going to Atlanta doesn’t make the Diamondbacks significantly worse in 2013. From Arizona’s perspective, that’s about the best thing you can say about this deal.

It’s pretty clear at this point that D-backs GM Kevin Towers has two lists, one roughly titled “My Guys,” the other “Get These Guys The Hell Out Of Here.” As ace Diamondbacks beat writer Nick Piecoro recently wrote, the belief in the industry is that Towers didn’t see Upton as a “winning player” — that beyond past injuries to his shoulder and thumb and the normal growing pains associated with playing full-time in the big leagues starting when you’re not old enough to drink legally, Upton wasn’t going to grow into the superstar and MVP candidate that others have projected in the past. Murmurs of clubhouse dissent and a burning need for a slick-fielding shortstop who can’t hit were enough to push Trevor Bauer out of town last month, just a few weeks after the D-backs traded a solid starting center fielder in Chris Young for another shortstop who can barely hit his weight. The logic with the Upton deal is equally bizarre.

If you dig deep enough, you can at least guess at the reasoning beyond doubts in Upton’s abilities. The D-backs recently signed Cody Ross to a three-year, $26 million free-agent contract. Meaning that even after trading Young, an outfield overflow was still in play, with Jason Kubel, Gerardo Parra, and Adam Eaton all staking reasonable claims to a starting job. They’d shopped Kubel as well as Upton, but reportedly couldn’t find a great return for the lefty-swinging slugger. Trading no one would’ve likely meant playing Ross every day in center field, which could have been a disaster. There’s the matter of the four young players the D-backs acquired in the trade, who could turn into productive and cheap sources of major league talent in the next few years. And of course it’s always possible that there’s information asymmetry at work here, that the Diamondbacks simply know something about Upton that others don’t, be it about his health, makeup, or something else that we’re missing.

Let’s go through these arguments one by one:

Signing Cody Ross created an outfield overflow, so someone had to be moved. No one put a gun to Kevin Towers’s head and made him hand a three-year deal to a 32-year-old outfielder with a gigantic platoon split (.928 career OPS vs. lefties, just .727 vs. righties — though we should regress these at least somewhat), particularly not when the outfield was already loaded and Scott Hairston represented a reasonable facsimile of Ross, who ended up costing one less year and a fraction of the price. All of this ignores why Arizona would want to block a promising center-field prospect like Adam Eaton in the first place, or even just give Parra a chance to play Gold Glove–level defense, with reasonable offensive numbers, in semi-regular duty, also for a fraction of the price.

The Diamondbacks have high hopes for the four young players in the trade. They might, sure. But Keith Law, for one, isn’t impressed. Describing Arizona’s take in the trade, Law writes:

Arizona’s return boils down to this: One year of Martin Prado, six years of a fifth starter in Randall Delgado, two fringy prospects, and one non-prospect. If that sounds like a good deal to you, I have some beachfront property in Phoenix to sell you.

Fellow prospects writer John Sickels didn’t have kind words for the D-backs, either. He handed out B- prospect grades for Ahmed and Spruill, and a C grade for Drury. His overall take:

These three prospects combined with Prado and Delgado strikes me as a fairly weak haul for Upton, and it certainly isn’t as good as what the Mariners reportedly offered last week, and what the Rangers were rumored to be offering.

The Diamondbacks know something the rest of us don’t. It’s arrogant and misleading to assume perfect knowledge of any deal, since there are sometimes factors beyond raw numbers that only those closest to the situation can fully grasp. But we also shouldn’t let the discussion devolve into an appeal to authority. The numbers and available scouting reports might not tell us absolutely everything. But when the information at hand so aggressively pushes you toward one opinion of a trade, there’s a strong chance the trade that looks like a stinker truly is a stinker.

It would be wrong to say the D-backs got no value, of course. Prado is one of the better contact hitters in the league, able to leverage his lifetime .295 batting average and solid glove into above-average value. In fact, ZiPS actually projects little offensive gap between Justin Upton and Prado for 2013. But the trade still reads like a two-quarters-and-a-dime-for-a-dollar move. Maybe you add another nickel after reports suggested the D-backs were likely to sign Prado to a long-term contract extension rather than lose him at the end of this season, though that might be a generous interpretation, given Arizona could have also held on to Upton and gone after Prado’s early-to-mid-30s services next winter.

It’s probably a stretch to say the Diamondbacks screwed their leverage by shopping Upton for so long. After all, as long as you have multiple interested parties, other teams probably will care more about the player being offered than anything else, and Upton was that kind of player. Still, there’s a difference between entertaining offers and deciding a player must be dealt, and the Diamondbacks appeared to have boxed themselves into that corner, with the preference that Upton land somewhere else before spring training. Whenever standing pat is effectively removed as an option in negotiations, you risk making an unfavorable move because you feel you have to, when in fact you don’t.

What’s most frustrating about this trade is that the Diamondbacks may well have been contenders in 2013 if they hadn’t gone Crazy Eddie on their roster this winter. The D-Backs scored 46 more runs than they allowed last season, suggesting a team with a true talent level closer to 86 wins than the 81 they actually won. A healthy Upton plus some growth from the team’s highly impressive stable of young arms may well have propelled them into the thick of the NL West race, especially if they’d been able to address their biggest weakness (left side of the infield) without blowing everything up. Instead, this is a team that traded multiple quality players to get two shortstops who both might not solve the problem, willingly took on two years and multiple millions for Heath Bell, ditched Trevor Bauer before we could find out what he could become, and traded their best player for no good reason.

The most likely result of all this maneuvering is a Diamondbacks team that’s somehow worse this season than it would have been had it done nothing, and worse in 2014 and 2015, with key players gone and the prospects coming back years away from producing value or possibly never delivering much value at all. In baseball parlance, we call that a big freaking loss.

Filed Under: MLB, Arizona Diamondbacks, Atlanta Braves

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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