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January 4, 2013

Rumor Roundup

Friday, January 4

by Daniel Rathman

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Remember when Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers told FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal that a trade involving Justin Upton was “highly unlikely”? Remember, also, when, in the wake of the Reds’ elimination from the postseason, Scott Rolen was thought to be “preparing for retirement”?

If Thursday’s developments are accurate, you can toss all of that out the window. Here’s the latest from Arizona and Cincinnati…

Upton, not Jason Kubel, now expected to be shipped out of the desert
When Towers made the aforementioned comment to Rosenthal, on Dec. 11, he explained the decision by saying that his roster was largely complete and that trading Upton could only worsen it. Less than two weeks later, Towers added Cody Ross to his already crowded outfield, virtually ensuring that either Upton or Kubel will leave Phoenix before spring training.

CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman heard from a source after Christmas that ‘someone will go,” but the asking price for Upton at that point remained exorbitant. The feeling in the immediate aftermath of the Ross signing was that Kubel was “most likely to go,” even though, as Rosenthal heard from an executive, “They wouldn’t get a lot for him.” Now, according to ESPN’s Buster Olney, the tables have turned.

Multiple sources told Olney on Thursday that they were “convinced” that Towers would ultimately end the saga by exporting Upton and keeping Kubel, preferring the return for the former despite the inferior production of the latter. Since the beginning of the offseason, there have been intermittent reports suggesting that Upton was available, but virtually all of them stopped short of making the 25-year-old the favorite in the trade derby. Not anymore.

Whether Towers changed his mind because of poor proposals for Kubel—who has $8.5 million in guarantees remaining on his contract and was only a smidge better than replacement level in 2012—or because of a blockbuster offer for Upton, is unclear. Rosenthal and his FOX Sports colleague Jon Morosi co-wrote an update saying that the Diamondbacks “continue to send mixed signals” about their intentions, but affirmed the stewing Upton thinking with a list of possible destinations. They noted that Upton “is perhaps the Mariners’ most realistic pursuit,” even though the no-trade clause in his extension would enable him to block a trade to Seattle.

Finally, Rosenthal and Morosi mentioned the possibility of both Kubel and Upton staying in Arizona. While that scenario is hypothetically feasible, the 25-man roster numbers don’t seem to add up. Towers fortified his bench earlier this offseason by signing Eric Chavez and Eric Hinske, and by acquiring Cliff Pennington from the Athletics for Chris Young, a series of moves that gave the Diamondbacks enviable depth, but also created a roster crunch. Assuming that manager Kirk Gibson will carry two catchers and no more than 13 total position players, Arizona has 14 players jockeying for the 11 remaining spots, and the majority of them have guaranteed salaries for the 2013 season.

If Kubel and Upton both stay in town, then Adam Eaton and Didi Gregorius would almost certainly be ticketed for Triple-A, unless Towers pares down his extensive collection of reserves. Gibson would once again struggle to find at-bats for Gerardo Parra, and lineup construction—given the multitude of timeshares—would become a daily challenge. All of those factors virtually ensure that either Kubel or Upton won’t be around come March. And the arrow, after a seesaw December, is increasingly pointing toward Upton.

Rolen has still not closed the door on playing in 2013
Towers’ indecision about the near-term future of his outfield is impressive enough, but Rolen seems determined to top it. The 37-year-old Rolen underwent surgery on his left shoulder in 2011, strained that same shoulder last year, and suffered through lower-back pain throughout the second half of the 2012 season. He has not appeared in more than 100 games since the 2010 season, and the injuries have eroded Rolen’s once-elite defensive skills, rendering him essentially a replacement-level player. Yet, MLB.com beat writer Mark Sheldon heard from general manager Walt Jocketty around Christmastime that Rolen remains on the fence about hanging up his cleats.

Jocketty hedged his bets at third base by signing free agent Jack Hannahan and bringing in Jason Donald in the three-team swap with the Diamondbacks and Indians. Todd Frazier, who showcased his thump with 19 home runs in 128 games while filling in for Rolen and Joey Votto, projects to receive the lion’s share of the playing time, with Hannahan offering a left-handed complement and significantly better defensive skills in the late innings of close games. Donald would be third in line, while serving as a utility infielder.

The depth that Jocketty has amassed at the hot corner may indicate that he believes that Rolen will retire, a sentiment that Sheldon echoed in his blog post. Rolen also is not currently under contract with the Reds, though a new deal would most likely be a formality, and given that none of the aforementioned players are world-beaters, manager Dusty Baker would slide him right back into his lineup. With 67.9 WARP over 2,038 games, Rolen has little left to prove; his primary motivation for returning would be one more chance at a second World Series ring, on a team that finished just five wins shy of the senior-circuit pennant last year.

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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