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November 20, 2012

Overthinking It

Why Justin Upton is Always About to Be Traded

by Ben Lindbergh

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At this point, it sort of seems as though Justin Upton has always been available, as if he was born on the trading block or at least debuted there before he made the majors. Upton trade rumors are as much an annual offseason ritual as Scott Boras’ binders, debates about Aroldis Chapman’s role, or worries about whether the Marlins are bad for baseball. He hasn’t actually been traded yet, not even once, but we’ve grown used to Upton existing in a perpetual state of about-to-be-dealt.

Difficult as it might be to believe, it’s been less than 2 ½ years since Upton was at the opposite end of the availability spectrum: untouchable. On March 3, 2010, the Diamondbacks signed Upton to a six-year, $51.25 million extension that runs through 2015. Just over three months later, on June 13, Nick Cafardo included this in the notes section of his column for the Boston Globe:

6. Derrick Hall, CEO, Diamondbacks — The boss isn’t happy with the bang for the 80-million-buck payroll, and he’s talking about reevaluating the staff (GM Josh Byrnes, manager A.J. Hinch) and reducing payroll. The only untouchable appears to be outfielder Justin Upton. Otherwise, watch the Diamondbacks at the trading deadline. Ace Dan Haren, center fielder Chris Young, second baseman Kelly Johnson, third baseman Mark Reynolds, pitcher Edwin Jackson, and first baseman Adam LaRoche all could be nice pieces for contenders.

Give Cafardo credit: other than Hall, Upton is the only Diamondback from that note still standing. Everyone else mentioned has been fired, traded, or allowed to leave, including the GM and the manager. But while Upton still hasn’t been touched, he has been checked out, looked over, and leered at by every team in the league.

On July 16th, 2010, a rival GM confirmed Cafardo’s intel, saying, “All their guys except Upton and maybe [Ian] Kennedy are available.” But by November, less than four months later, Bob Nightengale was reporting that Upton was “available” and “under discussion.” Upton’s transition from untouchable to available happened so quickly that it made some teams suspicious.

You’d think Upton would have had to have done something horrible in the interim to have become expendable so quickly, but he actually hit a respectable .299/.372/.449 in the second half. There were a few problems, though: he missed most of September with a slight labrum tear in his left shoulder; he hit only three home runs in the second half, likely due to the labrum; and the Diamondbacks fired Josh Byrnes and hired Kevin Towers, a GM who’s always open to exploring (and acknowledging) the potential for a trade.

Not only did Nightengale report the Upton availability rumor, he included a quote from the new GM, who’d been on the job for just under two months:

I’m open to listening on anybody. We got more hits on Upton and [Stephen] 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.

Towers didn’t say he was sick of Upton and really, really wished some team would come along to take him off his hands; essentially, he was saying that Upton wasn’t untouchable because no player is truly untouchable. Pretty standard stuff. Still, it was a change from how things had been before, when Upton wasn’t mentioned except by rival executives who whispered about how he couldn’t be had.

That mostly innocent quote proved to be the mouth of a river of rumors that has ebbed and flowed but never entirely subsided. A day or two after Nightengale’s column appeared, every other major rumor writer had his own Upton column up, which makes you wonder whether A) the rumors were so pervasive that no one could help hearing them or B) the rumor writers sensed a good story and did all they could to keep it alive.

Here are the CliffsNotes for the last two-plus years in almost-Upton-trades:

11/17/10: Jayson Stark says it would take five players with a mix of short- and long-term potential to pry Upton away from Arizona. An AL exec calls the Diamondbacks’ demands “ridiculous.”

11/17/10: Multiple sources report that the Marlins are among the teams most likely to land Upton. There actually haven’t been many concrete rumors about Upton offers in the last couple years, which might be a sign that the talks have tended not to progress too far. But right at the beginning, Joel Sherman uncorked the best proposal of the bunch:

One executive even suggested a package of outfield prospect Logan Morrison and righty Ricky Nolasco…would probably get a deal done.

The Diamondbacks are relieved that did not get a deal done.

11/17/10: Towers follows up on his earlier remarks by saying, “It’s just a thing where people are kicking the tires right now. That’s it.” Somehow, this statement works the rumor writers into an even greater frenzy.

11/18/10: Jon Heyman cites what will quickly become the most commonly cited proposed package for Upton: Daniel Bard and Jacoby Ellsbury.

11/19/10: It comes out that the A’s, Indians, Royals and Tigers are the four teams’ on Upton’s no-trade list. Upton can change the teams on this list every year, and in each of the past three years, he has.

12/6/10: Three weeks or so after the Upton rumor surfaces, Sherman reports that Upton is unlikely to be traded.

2/8/11: Tom Verducci writes that Towers “never really wanted to move” Upton anyway. Now he tells us.

6/3/11: According to Jayson Stark, roughly “two dozen teams” expressed interest when Towers told Nightengale that Upton wasn’t entirely unavailable. (To date, I count at least 20 teams that have been linked by name to Upton in trade talks.) In the same article, Derrick Hall says the rumors might have been responsible for Upton’s offensive rebound.

12/1/11: This might be my favorite entry: last December, Keith Law ranked Upton first on his list of the top 50 major leaguers age 25 or under. First, as in ahead of Andrew McCutchen, Giancarlo Stanton, Buster Posey, and Clayton Kershaw. Less than a year ago, Upton was back to being untouchable.

6/6/12: And back to being available again. With Upton hitting .243/.340/.365, Arizona managing partner Ken Kendrick says, “He’s certainly not the Justin Upton that he has been in the past and that we would expect of him. He’s 24 years old and it’s time for him to be a consistent performer and right now this year he’s not been that.”

7/7/12: Buster Olney reports that “the Diamondbacks have let other teams know that they are willing to trade Justin Upton.” Team executives narrow one eye, raise the other eyebrow, and ask Arizona to show them the CARFAX. Olney quotes “one official” as saying, “They wouldn’t be pushing it this hard in the middle of the year unless they really wanted him out of there.”

7/10/12: Nick Piecoro says the Diamondbacks believe Upton “could command a package of perhaps three players.” That’s down about two players from the last time the team entertained the idea of trading him, which makes sense, since Upton is down a couple years of team control.

7/16/12: Upton’s new no-trade list: Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, and Indians.

7/17/12: Olney speaks with “officials” who “are convinced that Justin Upton is going to be traded.”

7/18/12: Nightengale: “Upton will be traded. The only question is whether it’s now or during the winter.”

7/24/12: Kendrick says it’s a “reasonable assumption” that Upton will stay put. Early on trade deadline day, Nightengale tweets that Upton is definitely staying in Arizona.

10/3/12: Towers tells Barry M. Bloom that an Upton trade would be “very difficult,” but he won’t rule out the possibility. That’s all it takes to restart the rumor mill.

11/7/12: Ken Rosenthal reports that the Diamondbacks “are trying to trade” Upton. Rosenthal’s sources say the team is “again engaged in active discussions about Upton,” with one putting the chances of a trade at 80 percent.

11/7/12: Upton’s new no-trade list is composed of four new teams. Heyman later reports that Seattle and Toronto are two of the teams.

11/12/12: Danny Knobler says the Rangers tried to trade Mike Olt to the Braves for Andrelton Simmons so they could flip Simmons to Arizona for Upton.

11/18/12: “One Diamondbacks person” tells Heyman that Upton has a 90 percent chance of being with the team next spring. Kendrick says, “There’s a very high likelihood Justin will be in our starting outfield when we start the new season.”

***

That takes us to the present day, assuming you’re reading this on the day it was published. If you’re reading this the day after it was published, you might want to check MLBTradeRumors, since there’s a decent chance that there’s already been another Upton rumor.

So: 2 ½ years, nine pages of archived posts with “Justin Upton” tags on MLBTR, and we’re no closer to seeing an Upton trade than we were when we started. In fact, we might be further away. Why won’t the Upton rumors die?

1. Upton is interesting, and Kevin Towers is talkative. When it comes to the trade market, we tend to assume that the available players are the ones we read rumors about, but the volume of rumors depends in large part on how prominent a player is and how often his team’s front office talks to the media. Towers has produced countless quotes about Upton’s status, almost all of which amount to, “Well, he’s not not available.” “He’s not not available” is how most GMs feel about most of their players, but only some of them are willing to say so whenever they’re asked. Every time he refuses to declare Upton a Diamondback for life, Towers feeds another round of rumors. It’s possible that the correlation between trade rumors and trade talks isn’t as high as we think, and that Upton hasn’t been shopped any more often than a whole host of players we’ve heard less about.

2. Upton’s great expectations. Upton is 25 years old, and he’s already had two 4.5-WARP seasons and made a couple All-Star teams. He’ll earn less money over the next two years than the Tigers will pay Torii Hunter for his age-37-38 seasons. He’s not nearly as valuable as he was during his arbitration years, but he’s still making a heck of a lot less than he would on the open market. Why would the Diamondbacks want to trade him, especially in a two-wild-card world?

Here’s the catch: Upton was drafted first overall in 2005 and was ranked by Baseball America as the second-best prospect in baseball before the following season. Once he started playing professionally, the almost impossibly lofty performance comparisons succeeded the scouting hype. In Upton’s player comment in Baseball Prospectus 2008, we wrote that “comparisons to Griffey or A-Rod aren’t misplaced.” The next year, we wrote that “Upton’s 2008 was basically the equivalent of Ken Griffey Jr.’s first season” and concluded, “Don’t be surprised if Upton follows the same route.” In 2010, we compared Upton’s pre-age-22 power to that of six current of future Hall of Famers, again including A-Rod. It took until BP 2011 for us to grudgingly admit, “expectations that he is going to follow in Griffey’s footsteps should be tempered.”

It’s not a coincidence that the first Upton trade rumors appeared around the time that comment was written. The 2010 season was the first one in which Upton failed to improve, and late 2010 was when it sunk in that he might become something less than a legend. Imagine Mike Trout or Bryce Harper being worth two wins in 2013: bummer, right? No wonder Arizona was willing to entertain offers, especially in light of the organization’s outfield depth.

In 2011, Upton got back on track, and the rumors stopped. In 2012, he had another disappointing season, and the rumors returned. “I didn’t start the rumor mill,” he said as the 2012 trading deadline approached. “It’s a mess I have to clean up on my own. When I’m playing good, nobody talks. Period. Nobody talks. They just clap.”

Six seasons into his career, the only black ink on Upton’s page is a league-leading 19 HBP in 2011 (oddly, he’s been hit a combined 16 times in all other seasons). If Towers thinks the 2012 Upton is the one we’ll see going forward, it would make sense to deal him while memories of 2011 are still fairly fresh in other general managers’ minds.

3. Makeup/medical concerns. Questions about Upton’s effort level have followed him for years.* As Rosenthal wrote last July, “team officials are not convinced that Upton is a winning player.” Towers says he has “zero issues” with Upton’s character; then again, that might be what he would say if he had one or more issues with Upton’s character. Upton has at least allayed concerns about his durability (and his shoulder, specifically) by avoiding the DL since 2009 and playing in at least 150 games in each of the past two seasons.

*High draft position, second-overall prospect ranking, makeup concerns, disappointing performance, and years of trade rumors—yeah, this article could have been about B.J. Upton, too. The only reason why we’re not still reading trade rumors about the elder Upton is that we’re reading free agency rumors about him instead.

4. Upton would have brought (and to a lesser extent, would still bring) a big return in trade. Dealing a promising young player under team control can help turn around a franchise. If a team isn’t about to compete and it suspects that a player won’t live up to his promise, it makes all the more sense to trade him before the bloom is off the rose (see Young, Delmon).

Will the Diamondbacks ever trade Upton? Maybe—as always, it's a possibility if the right offer materializes. But probably not, if it hasn’t happened by now. Upton's value is low relative to what it was in previous seasons, when Towers decided not to trade him, and the GM won’t want to trade him for a subpar package that would make him look foolish if Upton fulfills his potential for another team.

But we will hear more rumors. That much we can count on. In Upton's 2012 annual comment, I concluded, "It's safe to assume he's off the market." It will be at least a couple of successful, rumor-free seasons until I assume that again.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

6 comments have been left for this article.

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