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December 1, 2010

Checking the Numbers

Upton and Away

by Eric Seidman

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The Arizona Diamondbacks made plenty of noise a couple of weeks ago when it surfaced that young outfielder Justin Upton could be made available in a trade. The rumor carried shock value and made plenty of fans wonder if the front office had gone senile. Trade Upton? Seriously? After touting Joe Saunders as a key component of the return on Dan Harenthis is the next move to instill confidence? Regardless of personal feelings on the matter, the rumor turned out to be more than mere gossip; it became evident that a wide array of suitors had inquired on what it would take to pry the potential superstar from the hands of newly appointed GM Kevin Towers. The short answer: it would take a heck of a lot for that to happen.

On the other side of the country, Derek Jeter continues to engage in an awkward contract negotiation with the Yankees, in which both sides understand they need one another to some extent, and yet the situation had become increasingly messy with each passing day until reports surfaced Tuesday that the sides were making progress.

Each of these situations represents a different aspect of risk in an offseason—or, in this case, what happens when there is virtually no risk on the part of the team in floating an idea—and present almost unheard of scenarios: Can Jeter really end up elsewhere? And would the Snakes really unload Upton?

Upton has received regular playing time since age 20, and from 2008-10 he slashed .277/.359/.482, with 58 home runs and 39 stolen bases. In between solid yet unspectacular seasons in 2008 and 2010, he put up a gaudy .300/.366/.532 line in 2009, complete with 26 home runs and 20 stolen bases. This performance ranks amongst the best age-21 seasons in baseball history. In fact, only 13 other players have ever produced an ISO of at least .230 in a qualifying season before their 22nd birthday, and the list includes luminaries like Albert Pujols, Ted Williams, Alex Rodriguez, Joe DiMaggio, and Jimmie Foxx. Simply put, the kid put himself in elite company with his performance and the sky seemed to be the limit.

Don’t like using ISO? If we shift to OPS+, only eight other guys matched Upton’s 129 before their 22nd birthdays. That list included the aforementioned Pujols and A-Rod, Ken Griffey Jr., Miguel Cabrera, and Tim Raines. Using TAv, only 15 other players who managed 500 PA in a season before turning 22 years old produced a mark greater than or equal to .300; Upton finished with a .302 TAv in 2009. That list includes Pujols, Rodriguez, Griffey, Cabrera, Frank RobinsonRickey Henderson, Al Kaline, and Joe Morgan.

Couple production like that with a team-friendly contract and what is not to love? On March 3, 2010, he signed a six-year extension with the Snakes worth $50 million that included a $1.25 million signing bonus. He was paid $500,000 in 2010 and will make $4.25 million in 2011. From 2012-15 his salary will gradually increase from $6.75 million to $9.75 million to $14.25 million to $14.5 million. The contract as a whole is a tremendous value for a player whose performance places him in very limited company, even if the price tag is expensive in those latter two years. Someone with the numbers he is expected to produce would sign for a much more lucrative deal on the free-agent market.

But the major assumption here is that Upton is the player we saw during the 2009 season, a stud already living up to his potential with the chance to become even more of an offensive threat. This isn’t an unfounded assumption, but we already know about what makes Upton so attractive. When discussing the rationale for making him available in trade discussions, what becomes more telling is why a team would even consider moving someone so young, so relatively inexpensive, and so talented. One major reason would be that the Diamondbacks believe him to be more of the 2008 or 2010 player than the elite superstar in the making from the 2009 campaign.

Taking his 2008-10 seasons on the whole, his .282 TAv is impressive, but not eye-popping. Of all the players with at least 1,200 plate appearances before turning 23 years old, Upton has, incidentally, the 23rd-highest TAv. Juan Gonzalez is in front of him, as are Greg Luzinski and Ryan Zimmerman. Slightly behind him are Greg Gross, Jim Fregosi, Delino DeShields, and Terry Puhl. That group isn’t exactly as sexy as the Hall of Fame players mentioned in previous statistical cliques.

If the Diamondbacks are viewing him under this lens, or severely discounting his 2009 performance and rendering him closer to a .270/.345/.445 true talent, then it would make some sense to capitalize on his high perceived value and extract as many cost-controlled players with upside as possible. Upton is a great value right now, but if the team could turn him into several pieces with the chances to make significant impacts both now and in the future, why not look into it?

Heck, even if they don’t think his 2009 season was a statistical outlier, it literally couldn’t hurt to see what teams would offer because there is no risk. They don’t have to trade him. They don’t have to seriously consider the offers. If a team comes along with a can’t-possibly-turn-this-down offer, they can accept and theoretically improve their team in the long run. If not, well, settling for another five years of a potential superstar is a solid fallback plan. However, there is a ton of risk in actually making a move. Though Upton’s ceiling is still up in the air—pun intended—he is more of a proven entity than the players likely used to acquire his services.

And since it is incredibly difficult to know with even 60 percent certainty whether the real Justin Upton more closely resembles his 2009 or 2010 production, swinging and missing with whatever tools fuel research in that area can lead to a catastrophic outcome if he blossoms into a superstar and the prospects in return peter out. At the end of the day, the Diamondbacks are unlikely to move him, at least right now, but this is a very interesting fork-in-the-road situation.

If Upton has another Ibanez-esque season, then he begins to look more common than special, could end up earning more than he would be worth even with the friendliness of the contract—assuming that hypothetical performance trend persists—and would not be worth much in return from a prospects standpoint. The same could be said if his shoulder problems are more serious than initially believed.

But this is predicated on the assumption that the idea behind trading him is performance- or health-driven. If, instead, it is contingent upon a toxic attitude or poor work ethic, the situation changes. At that point the Diamondbacks would be looking to unload a player they may believe has a tremendous future because he doesn’t make nice with an easily replaceable manager or refuses to play ‘13 Dead End Drive’ with Stephen Drew. This is a gross oversimplification, but the point is that anything other than performance or health is not a good reason for trying to get rid of him. Regardless, there is no risk for Towers to test the proverbial waters.

There is risk, however, for Jeter to test the free-agent waters, as Yankees GM Brian Cashman suggested to the Captain and his alliterative agent Casey Close. Plenty of numbers have been tossed around from both sides, and we can leave it simply as the Yankees are offering fewer years and dollars and Jeter is expecting a major contract. Jeter’s camp appears to be acting in an unrealistic fashion, but perhaps they are just upping the asking price to settle at a more lucrative medium. I would have to imagine that neither Jeter nor Close expects another team to pay more than $15 million a year for more than four years to an aging shortstop with notoriously poor defense and declining offensive skills. The offseason has plenty of legs left, so there isn’t much risk in standing firm on their requests for another few months.

From the Yankees’ point of view, they do not have a shortstop ready to plug in if the unthinkable occurs and Jeter signs elsewhere, though the team has stated Eduardo Nunez would be his replacement. They would probably look to bring in a veteran and not put the burden of playing the most important position on the most important team previously manned by the most important player of the franchise over the last two decades on the shoulders of a rookie. There are drawbacks to signing Jeter, but also benefits from where the Yankees sit, especially if he can be locked into a deal more commensurate with his level of talent. A five-year deal worth $100 million is fairly ludicrous given where he is in his career, but three years at $45 million would work. Even if the price tag went up to $20 million per year but the length was capped at three years, the Yankees should pounce. The dollar amount isn’t nearly as big of a deal as the duration, especially considering giving Jeter the extra funds wouldn’t likely prohibit the team from inking Cliff Lee.

By telling Jeter to test the market, Cashman is essentially daring him to find out what he already knows: Jeter just isn’t that good anymore and his worth is comprised mostly of intangibles. Other teams may make offers, but are they really going to be that lucrative? Is any team really going to want to be on the hook for $25 million per year over five years just to make headlines? Is Jeter really going to leave a perfectly respectable offer from the Yankees to go to a new team because of the principle of the matter? Cashman bears little risk in telling the Jeter camp to drink some reality juice, because he understands they both need each other, but that the stalwart shortstop has a greater need for the team than vice-versa.

 Upton isn’t going anywhere, and Jeter will re-sign with the Yankees, but both of these situations lend themselves to fascinating discussions, as it is rare for a player of Upton’s pedigree at such a young age to be mentioned in trade talks, and unthinkable for Jeter to sign elsewhere. Both GMs are taking interesting approaches right now, even if the outcomes prove to be what we expected all along. 

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

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