Two years ago, Justin Upton was coming off a career year in which he finished 4th in voting for the 2011 National League MVP. His team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, had shocked the league and won the National League West division that season. Upton was the marquee player for the biggest surprise in baseball and he had become a popular figure in Phoenix. The best part was Upton's age, he was only 22 years old and he was expected to be a perennial MVP candidate going forward. The future for both the Diamondbacks and Upton looked bright.
Last Thursday the Diamondbacks washed their hands of Upton, trading him along with 3B Chris Johnson to the Atlanta Braves for 3B Martin Prado, P Randall Delgado and three prospects. The trade ended more than half a year of near-constant trade rumors and drama surrounding Upton's future in Phoenix.
So what changed in those two years?
There are two factors to consider when analyzing the motivation behind Arizona dealing Upton. The primary being Arizona's front office and their feelings about Upton as a player, while the secondary being Upton's relatively poor performance during the 2012 season. Upton's 2012 campaign actually enabled Arizona to trade him while suffering less blowback from Diamondback fans, who had become disenfranchised with Upton during his struggles and had actually begun booing him at points during the season.
Upton was never a favorite of Arizona's GM, Kevin Towers. Towers was hired in September 2010 and immediately began tearing apart and rebuilding the Diamondbacks' roster to fit his mold for a team. A team with a strong bullpen and gritty players who gave 110% on a nightly basis. Although Upton was certainly no bum, he never seemed to be one of Towers' guys. By the time a deal was made it had become no surprise to anyone that Upton was leaving the desert.
Enter the secondary factor: Upton's decline in performance during the 2012 season. In 2011, Upton compiled MVP type numbers in multiple statistical categories including 31 HR and 88 RBI while slugging .529 and compiling a OPS of .898. He was viewed as finally reaching his vast potential as the number 1 overall pick of the 2005 MLB draft. He was an All-Star for the second time, finished 4th in the National League MVP vote and was selected as a Silver Slugger. He was widely praised and heralded as one of the best young stars in baseball. Unfortunately, Upton was not able to repeat the same success during the 2012 season. He hurt his thumb early in the year and played through the injury that season. Although he still hit .280, his OPS dipped to .785 and he only managed 17 HR and 67 RBI. On top of the pure statistics, the Diamondbacks did not perform to expectations that had been raised considerably by the playoff run in 2011 and missed the playoffs. Upton, fair or not, took a substantial amount of criticism from the fans during the disappointing season and his popularity decreased to the point where he was booed during a game on more than one occasion.
After the 2012 season Upton was the subject of near constant trade rumors during the offseason. Those rumors came to a head about two weeks ago when he rejected a trade to the Seattle Mariners. Arizona, not deterred and at that moment likely hell bent on dealing him, turned around on Thursday and sent Upton to Atlanta where he will join his brother BJ in the Braves outfield. In return Arizona received All-Star 3B Martin Prado, P Randall Delgado and three prospects (SS Nick Ahmed, P Zeke Spruill and 3B Brandon Drury) while also sending 3B Chris Johnson to Atlanta.
Baseball analysts were quick to label the trade as a victory for Atlanta. Upton is under contract for three more years at a reasonable salary ($9.75 million, $14.25 million and $14.50 million respectively) and Prado is eligible to become a free agent after the 2013 season. In addition, analysts do not view the prospect package sent to Arizona as a premium collection of potential talent. These reasons, coupled by the fact that Upton is viewed as a potential MVP while Prado (albeit a solid player) is not, have convinced many that Arizona lost the deal.
I am not one to agree.
The analysts are basing their assumptions on the expectation that Upton's down year in 2012 was not a sign of things to come. On the expectation that he will become a perennial MVP candidate as he was in 2011. They point to Upton's contract length (3 years) versus Prado's (1 year) and a thought to be mediocre prospect haul as fact that this was a steal for Atlanta.
Can we give Kevin Towers the benefit of the doubt before hanging him from the rafters of Chase Field? After all, he is the GM who poached Tyler Skaggs, Patrick Corbin and Joe Saunders for Dan Haren. He's the GM who traded for David Hernandez and brought in JJ Putz. He's GM who signed Jason Kubel and help orchestrate the Diamondbacks' stunning 2011 turnaround. He's earned a little bit of trust and patience to see what he has in store.
Consider the stat lines of Upton versus Prado over the last three years. Batting Average: Upton(.273, .289, .280), Prado(.307, .260, .301). OBP: Upton(.356, .369, .355), Prado(.350, .302, .359), OPS: Upton(.799, .898, .785), Prado(.809, .687, .796). RBI: Upton(69, 88, 67), Prado(66, 57, 70).
They don't look all that different, do they?
Upton was the better player during his MVP chase in 2011. But Upton has yet to display that type of play consistently. Prado has a lower ceiling but a higher level of consistency. If the Diamondbacks resign Prado to an extension (I've seen at least one person say to expect that), then in reality Arizona traded down in power, remain about even in overall batting and gained 4 prospects.
Sounds like a decent haul to me.
Obviously this trade will be judged 1-2 years down the road. The prospects sent to the Diamondbacks are an admittedly mediocre group. Delgado has already made the major leagues and has shown nothing particularly special to this point. The other three prospects are lower levels players who may never see the bright lights of the majors. But there is always the chance that one (or more) will end up as that diamond in the rough, and with Towers' track record I am excited to find out.
Justin Upton will almost certainly be told by history as the best major leaguer in this deal. He has rare talent, and if he ever finds some consistency he can be the Justin Upton of 2011 for years to come. The Diamondbacks took a risk in dealing him. Justin could have been the face of the franchise for the next decade if they had mended fences with him. However, Atlanta took a equal risk in dealing for him. Upton has not shown that he can consistently play at his talent level and dealing a seasoned veteran and All-Star like Prado for him is a gamble. The Braves also got a serviceable 3B in Chris Johnson to replace him, but they also gave up 4 young players. In the end, both teams took risks. Only history will tell which team took the correct risk.