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pipe-dreaming-of-justin-upton | November | 2010 Articles

2010 Archives

(Pipe?) Dreaming of Justin Upton

Written by Paddy McMahon on .

The Arizona Diamondbacks have reportedly made young outfielder Justin Upton available for trade.

Yeah, the same Justin Upton who, entering his age-24 season, has a career line of .272/.352/.471 and has a career 6.1 UZR in right field. The same Justin Upton who was heralded as one of the best prospects in baseball; the same Justin Upton who ranked #11 on the FanGraphs trade value list (which isn't an objective measure of value, but still: he's really good); the same Justin Upton who is signed through 2015 for about a team-friendly $50MM. Need more reason to salivate? As Aaron Gleeman pointed out, in the last 50 years, these are the players who have at least 1,500 PA before age-22 with a higher OPS than Justin Upton:

Alex Rodriguez

Miguel Cabrera

Ken Griffey Jr

Tony Conigliaro

Boog Powell

Cesar Cedeno

C'est tout. He's one of the best young hitters in baseball, not just today, but on a fairly historic level. He did have a bit of a down year in 2010 (.273/.356/.442), but a monster 2009 (.300/.366/.532) should help dispel doubts about his potential going forward. And in that down year, he even managed to raise his walk rate up to over 11%, so the season was not without its positives. And keep in mind that if I sound like I'm seeking out small ways to praise a down year for a player I like, Upton in 2010 was still worth nearly a full win with his glove alone, posted a .349 wOBA, and was a 3 WAR player. As a 23-year old. So what can we expect from Upton going forward?

In 2009, Upton was worth 5.6 WAR, so I'd say his talent level probably lies somewhere between 3 and as much as 8 WAR. 8 may be shooting for the moon, but he's got the defensive talent to augment a bat that should only get better as he develops – or, as Torii Hunter puts it, as he gets his man muscles. That's a recipe for excellence by any measure, and I for one would love to see him don a Braves uniform in 2011.

What would it take to get him? Well, new Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers has said that he'd have to be "blown away" by an offer in order to ship Upton out of town. Can the Braves put together such a package and still remain competitive next season? I think it's possible. My offer would look something like this:

Braves Send: Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, Mike Minor, Craig Kimbrel and Cody Johnson

Braves Receive: Justin Upton and Mark Reynolds.

Frankly, I don't trust young arms all that much, which is mostly why I included four of them in the trade. That may seem excessive, but even after sending away Teheran, Delgado, Minor and Kimbrel, the system still has Arodys Vizcaino and Brandon Beachy and Cory Rasmus and Cole Rohrbough and you get the idea.

Teheran is the organization's top prospect and one of the best pitching prospects in the minors, drawing immense praise from scouts and fans alike (this post is a good example; the title of the page, after all, is The Inescapable Brilliance of Julio Teheran). Teheran strikes out over a batter an inning while walking about 2 per 9, which are pretty much both benchmarks of excellence in their respective categories. In 2010, he was even better, posting a 2.59 ERA while playing at three different levels – low-A, A+, and AA. Oh, and he was 19 last year. It's really hard to part with talent like that, but, hey, you gotta give somethin' to get somethin'.

Delgado, who's entering his age-21 season after moving up to AA as a 20-year old, has a 3.45 ERA in basically 400 career IP. In that time, he's struck out a shade under 10 batters per 9, while walking just over 3. Those are, of course, outstanding numbers, as is the 3.04 K:BB ratio. He limits hits (7.8 per 9) and homers (0.6), and appears to be a consistent force in the rotations where he's been playing.

As for Minor, his inclusion in this trade is dependent on Kevin Towers' ability to look past ERA when judging a pitcher. Minor's velocity ticked up last season, which propelled him to excellent FIP and xFIP marks of 3.77 and 3.86, both of which belie his 5.77 ERA. That inflated ERA is probably a function of a BABIP that clocked in just a shade under .400; if Minor's velo increase is for real*, this guy is an MLB-ready starter whose downside is the middle of the rotation.

*I don't think it is.

As for Craig Kimbrel, he fills an immense void for the Diamondbacks: shutdown reliever. The Arizona 'pen. As detailed by Jack Moore, the Diamondbacks relievers combined for a 5.74 ERA that was over a full run worse than the next-worst team, and their -8.37 WPA is almost three wins lower than the next-worst team in over a decade.

Enter Kimbrel, who struck out nearly 2 batters per inning, which is utterly dominant. However, he also walked nearly seven per 9 innings. He still managed a K:BB ratio over 2 because of the strikeout rate, and his FIP was a sparkling 1.53, but I'd love the chance to trade away a reliever – even a potentially top-flight one like Kimbrel – to a needy team for a good prospect. The inclusion of Kimbrel is also my way of hedging my bets in re Towers' appreciation of ERA; Kimbrel's was 0.77.

As for Cody Johnson, the dude's got mammoth power and not much else. He's averaged 20 HR/PA in the minors, but his .243/.320/.476 line may not inspire all that much confidence. However, he is entering his age-22 season, and he spent most of the past year at AA, where he was a bit young for the league. He's going to strike out an enormous amount, but his raw power (and a bit of speed – double digit SBs in each of the past three seasons) smack of the throw-in guy from Arizona: Mark Reynolds.

The Diamondbacks' willingness to trade Justin Upton suggests a desire to rebuild and dump salary. The $13MM owed Mark Reynolds over the next two seasons ($5MM, $7.5MM, $500K buyout of an $11MM option in 2013) is going to be tough to get off the books with the season he just posted (.198/.320/.433) last season, but I suspect that he'll bounce back with a BABIP regression up from .257. My plan is for Reynolds to man the bench and come in as a late-innings pinch hitter until Chipper hits the DL, at which point he should be more than adequate as a fill-in guy. Plus, that would allow the Braves flexibility to either trade Omar Infante (whom I don't trust to repeat his 2010, and whose value is at its highest right now) or keep him on the bench as insurance against a Martin Prado injury.

As for Upton, who's the real prize here, you'd have a bit of an issue with both him and Jason Heyward playing right field. However, since both are so gifted defensively, you could slide either over to center field, platooning Nate McLouth and Matt Diaz in left. The defense wouldn't be great, but given that center and left were problem spots last year anyway, it's not like you're losing out on a whole lot. And since the Braves need a bat like Upton's so, so badly in a woeful lineup, that's the kind of sacrifice you have to make.

***

Now, I should point out that I added Delgado after writing up the Diamondbacks' side, because I didn't want to be one of those homer fans who proposes stupidly one-sided deals of some prospect for an elite hitter. It's entirely possible that it wouldn't take all four of those pitchers to get Upton, and I hope that is indeed the case. All I'm saying is that Upton seems like the safest bet among the free agent hitters (Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth both being, in all likelihood, prohibitively expensive) and that the Braves should do everything they can to go get him. Whether it takes two elite pitching prospects and two guys who've proven themselves in the majors (plus Cody Johnson) to get that done or not, Upton being available could be a gift from the heavens (desert) and a crucial part of the 2011 season.

Still taken aback by the sticker shock? Picture the lineup, man...

2B Martin Prado

RF Jason Heyward

3B Chipper Jones

CF Justin Upton

C Brian McCann

LF Nate McLouth/Matt Diaz

1B Freddie Freeman

SS Alex Gonzalez

It's not elite, but that 1-5 is miles better than what the team was running out there towards the end of the season. If McLouth rebounds from an abnormally lucky season and Freeman can be a solid contributor (something like .275, 20 HR), then the Braves look like serious contenders in the East.

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