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January 24, 2013

Rumor Roundup

Thursday, January 24

by Daniel Rathman

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Before the conclusion of the World Series, the Diamondbacks were expected to trade Justin Upton and keep Jason Kubel. Then, at the Winter Meetings, they were deemed more likely to trade Kubel and keep Upton. A month later, the D’backs agreed to a trade that would have sent Upton to the Mariners and probably resulted in Kubel staying in the desert—only to have Upton put the kibosh on the swap.

If you’re tired of general manager Kevin Towers’ flip-flopping, you’re not alone:

Fortunately, it appears that the end of the winter-long saga might finally be on the horizon. Without further ado, here’s an all Kubel-Upton edition of the Roundup…

Diamondbacks hope to make Kubel/Upton decision by Friday
ESPN’s Buster Olney heard from multiple sources “involved in this process” on Wednesday that Towers expects to trim his collection of outfielders by the end of the workweek. And, after months of rumors connecting more than a third of the league to the talks for both Kubel and Upton, the two-player derby may be down to one final suitor for each of them.

According to FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, when the dust settles, either Kubel will head to Baltimore or Upton will join his older brother, B.J., in Atlanta. As of Wednesday evening, the latter scenario was considered more likely. But given the endless string of plot twists that have kept the Hot Stove burning over the past three months, even Rosenthal’s informed handicapping should be taken with a grain of salt.

Nevertheless, since Upton is the current favorite—well, assuming that Towers has not changed his mind again since last night—for the purposes of the Roundup, let’s break down the Braves’ version first. If Upton stays in Arizona or is shipped elsewhere, manager Fredi Gonzalez could use Juan Francisco as his primary third baseman and Martin Prado as his regular left fielder, with the latter occasionally spelling the former to create playing time for fourth outfielder Reed Johnson. Alternatively, Prado’s versatility could enable Gonzalez to use him in a multi-position platoon role, playing the hot corner when opponents start a left-hander and left field when they send a righty to the hill. In that case, Johnson, a right-handed hitter, would play left when Prado is at third, and Francisco, a left-handed hitter, would play third when Prado is in left.

Adding Upton to the equation, presumably as the left fielder with Jason Heyward staying in right, would make Prado the full-time third baseman and relegate Francisco—who offers outstanding power but is an undisciplined hitter and a less-rangy fielder than Prado—to the reserve gig he held in 2012. This arrangement would be a boon to the Braves’ defensive efficiency, compensating for the downgrade from Michael Bourn to B.J. Upton in center by flanking the older Upton with two of the best corner outfielders in the league.

So, what might it take to bring the 25-year-old Upton, who is owed $38.5 million over the next three seasons, to Atlanta? The headliner, or at least one of the key pieces, of the return will almost certainly be right-hander Julio Teheran, who was the organization’s top-ranked prospect coming into the 2012 season and remains highly regarded despite losing some of his luster with a disappointing second go-‘round for Triple-A Gwinnett. Towers demanded that the Mariners include their best minor-league arm, fellow northpaw Taijuan Walker, in the swap that Upton nixed earlier this month, and even accounting for a slight decrease in leverage, he is unlikely to relent on that framework in negotiations with Braves GM Frank Wren.

Mark Bowman, who covers the Braves for MLB.com, expects the hypothetical package to include “at least one other top pitching prospect,” further thinning a farm system that lost flamethrower Arodys Vizcaino to the Cubs in the deal that brought Johnson and Paul Maholm to Atlanta at last year’s trade deadline. The Diamondbacks already have considerable pitching depth in their pipeline, but if there is no such thing as a pitching prospect, then quantity can be just as important as quality. Though the identities of the possible secondary pieces remain a mystery, right-handers J.R. Graham and Zeke Spruill and left-hander Sean Gilmartin could catch Towers’ eye. The Braves chose high-ceiling arms with each of their first two picks in last year’s draft, but by rule, Lucas Sims and Alex Wood cannot be included unless one of them heads to Atlanta this summer as a player to be named later.

Some have previously speculated that the Diamondbacks could hold firm on obtaining Andrelton Simmons in any trade with the Braves—with Didi Gregorius, who was acquired from the Indians, via the Reds, for Trevor Bauer, possibly filling his shoes in Atlanta—but Olney heard from sources on Wednesday that the 23-year-old shortstop is virtually untouchable. And, even with Simmons off the table, at least some of Arizona’s evaluators are content with the offer, a sentiment that jibes with Rosenthal’s report that Upton is now the favorite to leave the desert.

Then again, Olney tweeted yesterday morning that Towers’ price tag for Kubel is “dropping,” and it could soon tick down enough to spur a deal with the Orioles. Kubel is owed $7.5 million in 2013 and has a club option for the same salary ($1 million buyout) for 2014, but while his trade value is markedly lower than Upton’s, he is also much less integral to the Diamondbacks’ near-term hopes.

The Orioles will welcome back a healthy Nick Markakis and Nolan Reimold to their lineup this spring, and they currently project to go with Chris Davis at first, Markakis in right, and Reimold in left, with Wilson Betemit serving as the designated hitter. If Kubel, a left-handed hitter but a poor defensive outfielder, were to enter the fold, he would likely split time with Reimold (who bats right-handed) and Betemit (a switch-hitter). Reimold has not showed much of a platoon split in his first 916 major-league plate appearances, but given his injury history, manager Buck Showalter could benefit from the presence of a more powerful backup than Nate McLouth.

That said, Kubel’s defensive disutility makes him a less-than-ideal option for the Orioles, who might simply feel compelled to do something to shake the sentiment that this offseason will become a wasted opportunity. Since Kubel is ill-equipped to play the outfield on a regular basis, he would likely receive most of his at-bats as the DH, an arrangement that essentially renders Betemit a paperweight. Betemit is a switch-hitter in name only (take your pick between SHINO and SWINO) with a 637 career OPS against left-handed pitchers. That coupled with Kubel’s 691 lifetime OPS versus southpaws means that a platoon-oriented timeshare would require a third party, such as Danny Valencia, whom the Orioles acquired from the Red Sox in late November.

Indeed, per Eduardo A. Encina of The Baltimore Sun, the Orioles are “not convinced” that Kubel represents a significant upgrade over their existing assets and feel that the Diamondbacks’ reduced asking price is still too high. Encina believes that the ongoing talks are being driven by Towers, who is determined to exhaust the market for Kubel before deciding whether to bite the bullet and part with Upton. If that analysis is accurate, then, as Rosenthal tweeted, the Upton-to-Atlanta scenario seems more probable.

Finally, it’s worth noting that although most expect an either-or resolution, Towers’ stable of outfielders is deep enough that both Kubel and Upton could be moved if each of their price tags is met. The Upton market is deeper than Kubel’s list of suitors—especially now that the Mariners have brought back Michael Morse—but a spring-training injury or reevaluation of needs might create an opening for the lefty masher even if the Orioles ultimately pass. Meanwhile, a glance at Arizona’s depth chart shows the logjam that could make Kubel or Upton expendable even after the other is dealt.

Notice, first, the list of players who are “on the outside looking in.” Two of them, Willie Bloomquist and Adam Eaton, are a reasonable bet to land on the Opening Day roster. Bloomquist is the most versatile player on the Diamondbacks’ bench, would be their only right-handed-hitting outfield reserve, and is entering the second year of a two-year, $3.8 million contract, which means that his paycheck is guaranteed. Eaton got “his big shot” at the end of last season, and he performed well enough for Towers to ship Chris Young to Oakland in October. He is a significantly rangier defender in center field than Ross, and a much more patient hitter who would fit better atop manager Kirk Gibson’s lineup, at least against right-handed pitchers.

If both Bloomquist and Eaton are to make the team, then two spots need to be cleared. Deleting Kubel and Upton from the roster would still leave the Diamondbacks with an outfield of Eaton, Gerardo Parra, and Ross, with Bloomquist offering a complement to the lefties. A.J. Pollock, who enjoyed a 31-game cup of coffee last year, could then become a candidate for a bench role. The group, as a whole, would lack the thump that Kubel, Upton, and Young provided last year but could excel defensively and serve as a palatable bridge to the next batch of free-agent pickups.

The Young trade, the Ross signing, and the Upton rumors have muddled our understanding of Towers’ short-term outlook. Assuming that he sticks to the Friday deadline, whatever happens later this week will finally clarify it.

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

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