"I'm open to listening on anybody.. We got more hits on Upton and Drew. They're difficult to move, but sometimes to make your club better, you have to move good players. You never know when a deal might present itself.''
-- Kevin Towers, November 2010
"My job is to try to make this club better. We're not out shopping him by any means. Clubs have asked; I've said, 'Hey, tell me what you would do.' We could either say yes or say no."
-- Kevin Towers, July 2012
Haven't we been here before? I think we have. In the winter before last, the word went out that Justin Upton was not the untouchable he had been under the previous regime. Nothing came of that, with the right offer never apparently coming along: Upton had a monster 2011, and seemed set to be here for the long-term once more. That was up until last week. So, has anything changed since last time? Is Upton on the trading-block, or is this Towers still just being "open to listening on anybody"?
The first public mention [Buster Olney may have said it earlier, but on an ESPN Insider post, so no-one really noticed...] was from Ken Rosenthal and Jon Morosi's story on Fox Sports, saying "If the Arizona Diamondbacks fall from contention. at that point, the D-backs would consider offers for right fielder Justin Upton, according to major-league sources." However, that story was written on Friday, at which point Arizona were seven games back in the West, and the "fall from contention" mentioned was a serious threat. Three victories over the Dodgers later, the team is no longer in quite the same situation, but the rumor mill has continued to turn.
The following day, Jon Heyman of CBSSports described the interest in Upton as "huge," but said Arizona were "only interested in making a perfect deal." Morosi said the Pirates were looking at Upton or Carlos Quentin, reporting that Pittsburgh "have the prospect depth to consummate a deal for either." Rosenthal then amended his original report to say Upton could be dealt, "even if they are in contention." Though he stressed the team would have to be "dazzled" by such an offer, and the approach was basically the same as during the 2010 off-season. "Towers would trade him for the right package," concluded Rosental. "Towers would trade almost anyone."
There does seem doubt the Pirates would be a good fit for a deal, but there are no shortage of other suggested trading partners. Olney suggested Atlanta, with a trade centered on Martin Prado, who can play both third and the outfield. He also mentions Texas, with 3B prospect Mike Ott the core. [Olney also says Upton's no-trade list includes the Yankees. So suck it, Yankees fans - suck it long, and suck it hard]. Nick Piecoro, meanwhile, puts forward the case for the Blue Jays, saying they have "a shortstop in Adeiny Hechavarria whom Diamondbacks scouts are known to like. It would take a lot more than Hechavarria to entice the Diamondbacks, but he could be a start."
Piecoro also wrote about the reasons why the Diamondbacks might look in to trading Upton. In summary, these are a) the organization's depth in the outfield, b) the large return which could allow them to fill multiple holes, such as the left-hand side of the infield, c) the suggestion, "There seem to be some in the organization who aren't crazy about him. That was clear from managing general partner Ken Kendrick's comments last month." I find that particularly interesting: while Kendrick's comments were critical, there is a significant gap between them and "ship him out." Though the team hasn't needed public statements previously to get rid of players, e.g. Troy Glaus.
One other factor is how Upton has perhaps not advanced his production as the team would have hoped. At the time of the original rumors, Tim Marchman wrote a piece which seems prophetic now, entitled Diamondbacks' Justin Upton may be as good as he'll ever be. He concluded, "You can't expect the kind of linear improvement from a historically talented player that you can from a merely excellent one. Baseball is hard, and going from great to greater is in many ways harder than going from good to great." At the time, J-Up's career line was .272/.352/.471. Now, with an extra thousand-plus PAs under his belt and his 25th birthday next month, it's .276/.357/.477.
Not that this is by any means bad, of course. Even allowing for Chase, that's a 126 OPS+, and you can add to this Upton's plus-defense and good base-running skills. But the comparisons we were hearing the year Upton made his first All-Star Game at the age of 21, e.g. Ken Griffey Jr. or Alex Rodriguez, no longer seem valid. Over their age 22-24 seasons, Griffey's OPS was 164 and A-Rod's 144: Upton's is 120 - good by most standards, except by comparison. If the team does not expect much more improvement, it might make sense to shift Upton before his price balloons ($9.75 million next year, over $14 million in 2014 + 2015) to narrow the gap between cost and value.
But he's still a key component of the 2012 Diamondbacks: if the team is to climb back into a post-season spot, it's hard to see how any trade of Upton would improve the team immediately. However, Towers has stressed that selling Upton would not be something done to acquire future potential: "We're not looking for prospects. We're still in win mode. We're certainly not in sell mode at all." The obvious spot on the team which needs upgrading is third-base, where the team's OPS of .630 ranks 15th in the league, and dead-last for park-adjusted sOPS+..But would acquiring even, say, Chase Headley make the Diamondbacks better, if it came at the cost of Upton?
Admittedly, the team does have decent depth in the outfield. But the result of an Upton trade would likely be an everyday line-up of Jason Kubel, Chris Young and Gerardo Parra, with Adam Eaton or A.J. Pollock as the fourth man. That has got to be significantly worse than Kubel, Young/Parra (correctly platooned), Upton. What might work is if the team promoted Eaton: not only are his offensive numbers much better than Pollock, he's also a left-hander, which could allow him to platoon with Young. Though I've severe doubts as whether Gibson would be prepared to give the bulk of the starts to a rookie over Young, even if it was the best thing to do.
[As an aside, if we apply the Reno correction to Eaton's numbers in Triple-A, we get a Chase Field equivalent line of .300/.357/404. That's a .761 OPS, which is a little below what Parra has produced. He hasn't got much of a gap in his numbers vs. LHP and RHP - only 32 OPS points - but it would probably make sense to use him off the bench or for spot starts against right-handed pitchers]
To me, this doesn't feel any different from the 2010 speculation, and Jack Magruder seems inclined to agree, writing, "Justin Upton is available. Put that in the same file as the sun rises daily." He adds "There is nobody close to hitting the asking price for Upton", according to his source on the team. Magruder thinks Stephen Drew is more likely to be moved before the deadline, with the team "certain to decline" his $10m option for next year, and even among the Arizona outfield, "it is more likely that a player such as Chris Young would be traded." The whole piece throws a big bucket of cold water on the entire situation.
There is a big difference between now and then, however. In November 2010, the team was coming off a dire, 97-loss season, and it seemed like there could be a few seasons of rebuilding before the Diamondbacks were able to contend again: trading Upton made more sense against that background. Now, after the success of 2011, the team is back into "win now" mode. Even if the first half of this campaign has been disappoint, we're not out of contention, and J-Up would seem to be a very important cog in the second-half battle for the NL West.
There is one similarity though: this is certainly not a situation where the team has to trade Upton. They may not even want to trade Upton. But, if someone comes along, prepared to offer a deal that will help the team both in the short- and long-term, there's no harm in listening. Teams may think they'll be buying low on Justin and getting a bargain, but I've a strong feeling Towers is not interested in selling him that way. If nothing acceptable comes along, then Upton stays with Arizona. I'm perfectly comfortable with that being the case.