Arizona Caps Bizarre Offseason by Selling Low on Justin Upton

Justin UptonThe Arizona Diamondbacks capped off a bizarre offseason by finally sending human trade rumor Justin Upton out the door in a blockbuster deal with the Atlanta Braves.

For the Braves, Upton combines with his brother B.J., Jayson Heyward and Reed Johnson to give them one of the most talented outfields in the game. The Braves also have two excellent young infielders in shortstop Andrelton Simmons and first baseman Freddie Freeman. The Uptons, Heyward, Simmons and Freeman are all 28 years old or younger and under the Braves’ control for at least the next three seasons.

The way Atlanta has constructed their team in past offseasons and continuing through this winter has made plenty of sense.

Arizona, on the other hand, has spent this winter going backwards. General manager Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson have been seeking “winning” players who fit the grinder mentality the organization is looking for. Center fielder Chris Young was traded in a three-team deal that netted light-hitting shortstop Cliff Pennington and maligned reliever Heath Bell. Top prospect Trevor Bauer was sent packing in a three-team deal for a package built around light-hitting shortstop prospect Didi Gregorious. Then, Upton was finally sent out-of-town after three years of trade rumors for third baseman Martin Prado, starting pitcher Randall Delgado and a handful of prospects.

Prado is an excellent pickup for the Diamondbacks, but at 29 years old, he’s close to exiting his prime, whereas Upton is just entering the prime of his career at age 25. Prado grinds out at-bats and avoids striking out, but he doesn’t have the same tools as Upton, particularly in the power and speed departments. Prado has hit above .300 four times in his career, including most recently last season when he hit .301 with a .359 on-base percentage and a .438 slugging percentage.

While Prado is a solid player and Delgado gives the already deep Diamondbacks pitching staff another arm for the back of the rotation, the Braves are getting a potential MVP in Upton. Two years ago he hit .289/.369/.529 with 31 home runs to carry the Diamondbacks to the NL West crown, earning a fourth place finish in the MVP vote in his age-23 season. An early season thumb injury sapped him of his power last year, yet he still managed to hit .288/.355/.430 in a down year by his standards. In 2009, at age 21, he hit .300/.366/.532 with 26 home runs. Players with all five tools and two excellent seasons to their name before they turn 25 years old don’t grow on trees, and they usually don’t get shipped out-of-town for a questionable return.

Upton’s floor is just about as good as Prado’s peak. While Prado will help fill the void at third base for the Diamondbacks next season, and perhaps beyond next season if they work out a contract extension, he isn’t the type of player you would expect a potential superstar like Upton to get dealt for.

Cody Ross will likely replace Upton in right field after the Diamondbacks inked him to a three-year, $26 million deal earlier this winter. Ross had a career-year at age 31 for the Red Sox last year, yet his OPS was only 22 points higher than Upton’s (.807 for Ross, .785 for Upton). Ross may have the intangibles the Diamondbacks look for, but like Prado, he doesn’t have the same combination of youth and talent that Upton offers.

The Diamondbacks finished 81-81 last year, but their run differential suggested that they should have won 86 games. They entered the offseason with a talent base good enough to overtake the Giants and Dodgers and hold off the upstart Padres in the NL West.

However, they’ve gone backwards this winter through their eagerness to deal Bauer, Upton and Young for light returns. In the end, they would have been better off hanging onto all three players they dealt this winter. Right now, Arizona is clearly a step behind the Dodgers and the Giants out west.

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