By Andrew Perna
After years of persistent rumors, the Arizona Diamondbacks have finally severed ties with Justin Upton. They drafted him with the first overall pick in 2005 and enjoyed a pair of All-Star seasons as the Virginia native flirted with superstar status.
Upton was mentioned in trade rumors constantly, but the Diamondbacks were hesitant to pull the trigger on a deal without receiving a significant haul in return. On Jan. 10, Arizona agreed to terms on a trade with the Seattle Mariners that would have sent Upton to the Pacific Northwest in exchange for Taijuan Walker, Nick Franklin, Charlie Furbush and Stephen Pryor.
However, the 25-year-old used his no-trade clause to block the deal. That allowed the Atlanta Braves to slip in and acquire the outfielder. The Braves landed Upton, along with Chris Johnson, in exchange for Brandon Drury, Nick Ahmed, Zeke Spruill, Randall Delgado and Martin Prado.
The popular story is the pairing of Justin Upton with his older brother B.J. in Atlanta. The brothers haven't been teammates since Justin was a freshman in high school. The Uptons will team with Jason Heyward to patrol the outfield at Turner Field, forming the most-cleverly nicknamed trio in the Major Leagues: "Up, Up and a Hey!"
The younger Upton is coming off his worst professional season, hitting .280/.355/.430 with 17 home runs, 67 RBI and 18 stolen bases. In 2011, he finished fourth in the National League MVP voting, finishing with a .289/.369/.529 line and career-highs in home runs (31), RBI (88) and steals (21).
It's hard to quantify whether or not constant rumors hurt Upton's on-field production, but there is a strong possibility that he could rebound this season with his short-term future determined. In his mid-20s, he is still an enticing talent with three years and $38.5 million left on his current contract. He will make $9.75 million in 2013, but that figure will increase to more than $14 million in both '14 and '15.
The sample size isn't huge, but Upton has made 67 plate appearances at Turner Field. In those games, he has hit .293/.388/.483 with eight RBI and 17 strikeouts. The numbers don't mean much, but he hasn't struggled mightily in Georgia.
Fredi Gonzalez has already revealed that Justin Upton will hit third and B.J. Upton will follow him. The Upton combination will undoubtedly be both wonderful and disappointing at the same time. B.J. has annually been among the leaders in strikeouts and is a notoriously streaky hitter. Justin is a little more consistent and strikes out less, but does swing-and-miss 2.27 times more often than he walks.
For the Braves, an outfield of Justin, B.J. and Heyward is better and more well-rounded than the one they used against the St. Louis Cardinals in the playoffs last October -- Prado, Michael Bourn and Heyward.
Atlanta issued B.J. Upton a five-year, $75 million deal which should keep him in a Braves uniform for several years. Justin, meanwhile, could become a trade chip if he doesn't pan out or Atlanta determines that they are unlikely to re-sign him as a free agent following the 2015 season. That flexibility bodes well for Frank Wren, who is looking to ride their additions to more than just a one-game playoff appearance this coming fall.
Grade for the Braves: B+
Kevin Towers found himself between a rock and a hard place while trying to trade Justin Upton. The outfielder's no-trade clause limited possible destinations and his down 2012 campaign didn't help either. The Diamondbacks have been listening to and fielding offers for Upton for nearly two years and Towers thought he had a winning deal earlier this month.
The group of players Seattle was willing to give up for Upton was substantially better than the haul Atlanta parted with to acquire him.
The Mariners were willing to include Taijuan Walker, named on Tuesday as MLB.com's fifth-best prospect. The right-hander, who was the 43rd overall pick in 2010, is projected as a front-line starter. Nick Franklin is expected to become an everyday player at either shortstop or second base and could reach the Major Leagues as soon as this season. MLB.com has rated him as the 47th-best prospect heading into 2013.
Charlie Furbush has been a starter and reliever in his brief career, pitching to a 4.51 ERA and striking out 120 batters in more than 131 innings. He combined with five other Seattle pitchers to toss a no-hitter this past June. Stephen Pryor, the fourth player the Mariners were going to send to the Diamondbacks for Upton, entered last season as one of the organization's top prospects. He projects as a future closer and after making his debut midway through 2012. He appeared in 26 games and had 27 Ks in 23 innings and posted a 3.91 ERA.
If Upton had approved the Seattle deal, the Mariners would have boosted their anemic offense (something they have been trying to do for quite some time) and Arizona would have added a future starting pitcher, a probable everyday infielder and two arms with some Major League experience.
Grade for the Diamondbacks: C-
Arizona acquired a proven Major League player in Prado, but he can become a free agent after the 2013 season. That makes him even more of a "rental" player than the centerpiece of the deal, Upton himself.
None of the prospects the Diamondbacks received from the Braves were among MLB.com's Top 100 prospects, which doesn't mean the haul isn't good, but the ceiling for the quartet isn't as high. Taijuan Walker would have been the prize Towers long desired in exchange for Upton and could have become a vital part of the organization going forward.
A thirteenth-round pick of the Braves out of high school in 2010, Brandon Drury hit .229/.270/.333 last season with the Rome Braves of the Class A South Atlantic League. He has been projected as a future third baseman with a great work ethic and the potential for a special bat. He is still at least two years away from sniffing the Major Leagues.
Nick Ahmed, an infielder drafted in the second round of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, hit .269/.337/.391 for the Lynchburg Hillcats of the Class A Advanced Carolina League last season. He has good size for an infielder and was among the AFL's Rising Stars this past fall.
Zeke Spruill is the oldest of the prospects, a second-round pick back in 2008. Pitching for the Double-A Mississippi Braves in 2012, he had a 3.67 ERA in 27 starts. He struck out more than twice as many batters as he walked and was named to the Southern League All-Star team. Randall Delgado, the fourth "prospect" carries Big League experience having made his debut on June 17, 2011.
He throws five pitches and has made 24 starts among his 25 appearances. Hitters connected on his throws more often in 2012 than in '11, but he saw his K/9 increase from 4.63 to 7.38 from his first to second season.
Trading Upton to the Braves adds depth to Arizona's organizational roster and finally ends an ongoing soap opera. However, two years of availability, a shrinking market and his no-trade clause kept the Diamondbacks from acquiring a true difference-maker in return.
Atlanta Braves, Arizona Diamondbacks, Seattle Mariners, Official Trade, Trade Rumor