Thursday, January 24, 2013

Upton, Upton and Away

Justin Upton
Since June 2012, has put out 30+ articles with the words Justin Upton rumors in the title. This isn't just a blind fasciation with a specific player; the Diamondbacks have done everything but see Upton on the plane out of Phoenix. Arizona hasn't offered Upton an extension or publicly supported him; instead the team has shopped him all over the league hoping to get the best package in return. Upton still has three affordable years left on his current contract, is the ripe young age of 25 years old, and has compiled 17.1 fWins in his 6 MLB seasons, a combination usually destined for stardom. Upton has numerous skills and few deficiencies, and he's entering the most productive years of his career, and now he has a new team.

Justin Upton the Player:

Who is Justin Upton? Over the last few months we've taken to see him as a commodity, and not a player. Maybe familiarizing ourselves with him will give us greater insight into the Diamondbacks' decision to trade him and the Braves' desire to acquire him.

First of all, Upton is 6 foot 2 inches tall and weighs 205 pounds, a prototypical athlete's build. This is something a scout would say, but many well skilled in analytics would say that it isn't indicative of success. Both the scout and the numbers guy are correct. Not all athletic players are great and not all great players are athletic, but players with the combination of athleticism and the numbers to back it up generally make cases for Cooperstown. Upton's build aids in his ability to stay healthy and his raw combination of speed, power, and agility.

Offensively, Upton has had ups and downs in his career, but never a bad season, so we can safely assume that he won't drop off, and that the numbers we have are reliable. From a power hitting perspective, Upton fits the bill as a middle-of-the-order hitter. While Upton's home run totals have ranged from 17 to 31, he has a total of 2 more home runs in his career than fellow young talented outfielder Adam Jones, signifying a high probability that he will continue to pump out somewhere between 20 and 30 home runs per season for the duration of his prime years.
2007 2 0.143 0.364
2008 15 0.213 0.463
2009 26 0.232 0.532
2010 17 0.17 0.442
2011 31 0.24 0.529
2012 17 0.15 0.43

Upton is a right-handed batter, meaning he might have a problem with right-handed pitching, but as you can see from his platoon splits, Upton hits both righty and lefty pitchers fairly equally.  
vs L (Multi) 0.278 0.387 0.480 0.294
vs R (Multi) 0.283 0.349 0.460 0.285
Split (Multi) 0.005 -0.038 -0.02 -0.009
Upton's platoon split numbers show an ability to hit righties and lefties, but it also shows a lack of patience or an inability to see right-handed pitching as opposed to left-handed pitching well. Looking at his BB/K ratio splits, 1.04 vs. LHP and 0.37 vs. RHP, further proves this point. So, Upton goes from being a good hitter against righties to a very good hitter against lefties, typical for right-handed hitters.

Defensively, Upton is suited for his position, corner outfield. Using defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating, it's fairly obvious that Upton is just above average in right field, to the point that he is a defensive asset in comparison to an average right fielder. Given that the Braves have stud right fielder Jason Heyward patrolling right field, Upton will be moved to left-field, a least demanding outfield position, where his defensive numbers will most-likely improve even more. While defense does begin a descent as players age, Upton is only 25, so moving him to left field won't allow any defensive deficiencies to pop up for the near future. 

Upton also presents as an above average baserunner. He has posted a positive, if not above average UBR in each of his 6 seasons in the league, showing both speed and base running acumen. 
Justin Upton the Acquisition:
Martin Prado
So, it turns out to be true, Justin Upton is worth the price of a trade, but what about this specific deal with the Braves? The Braves sent 3B/OF Martin Prado, RHP Randall Delgado, SS Nick Ahmed, RHP Zeke Spruill, and 1B/3B and Brandon Drury. Prado has been a great player, in that he is above average defensively at third base, left field, and previously at 2nd base, while posting career .341 wOBA, 111 wRC+, and .345 OBP. Prado makes his living by swinging. He doesn't walk often, career 7.0 BB%, swings a lot, career 90.1 contact percentage, but still produces 11% more offense than a replacement level player. 

Randall Delgado is the swing player in this deal. I say "swing player" because Delgado is on the cusp of becoming a full-time Major League pitcher. Delgado has a great deal of talent and upside given the impressive comments from scouts, but he hasn't replicated his Minor League success in the big leagues just yet. Delgado is 23, so if he is destined to blossom, it should happen within the next 3 seasons. He's cheap, under team control, and has a mid-90's fastball, sinker/change up combination that induces ground balls. On the other hand, he also has issues with his control, posting a 3.95 BB/9 rate in his career. In addition to his high walk rate, Delgado, despite his power four-seamer, posted a 50.2 GB% last season showing a pitcher who isn't going to post high strikeout numbers, but has a power sinker that has serious movement. That serious movement probably causes some of his wildness, so if Diamondbacks pitching coach Charles Nagy can work on keeping Delgado calm on the mound, and confident in his abilities, his walk numbers should come down a bit as the velocity on his fastball comes down. Fausto Carmona went through a similar situation when pitching in Cleveland.

As for the other three players in this deal, all three are prospects. Nick Ahmed is a polished shortstop that does everything well, but isn't exceptional in any category. He plays solid defense, has good speed, makes good contact, but doesn't project as more than a replacement level shortstop. Given most teams' lack of depth in up-the-middle position prospects, Ahmed becomes more valuable than his numbers/skills indicate. Look for the Diamondbacks to either move Ahmed for another pitcher, the rumor mill seems to think the Tigers' Rick Porcello, or to keep him to compete with Didi Gregorius as the future shortstop in Arizona. Spruill is an interesting prospect. He's similar to Delgado, but has no MLB experience under his belt. He's a righty with speed and multiple useable pitches, and has received positive scouting reports noting him as a future #3 type starter. This gives the Diamondbacks 4 young near MLB-ready or MLB-ready pitchers, one more than they had going into the offseason. While Trevor Bauer has the possibility to be a top-15 starting pitcher in the Majors for the next 10 years, Spruill isn't too far off, and he represents only 1/5 of the package the Dbacks received for Upton. 

Who Got the Best Deal:
GM Frank Wren
In this case, I'm going to say that it's a tie. In the short term, the Braves won. In fact, I think the Braves won this deal for the next 3 seasons. Once Upton's current contract expires and he is looking at a contract worth approximately $150 million, the Braves won't be able to afford him. Sure, his brother B.J. is signed on with Atlanta for 5 seasons, but that won't be enough to persuade brother Justin from leaving for the big money.  Upton is a stud, but not a star. Stardom comes with consistency, so when Justin Upton shows true consistency, we can dub him a star, but for now he is just a stud. On the other hand, I would say fellow Braves outfielders Jason Heyward and B.J. Upton are also studs. The Braves look like they traded a lot for Upton, but given his age, and previous experience, Justin is worth it. Oh, and there's the added bonus that the Diamondbacks also sent third baseman Chris Johnson to Atlanta. This is a downgrade from Prado, but when you add Johnson's projected numbers to Upton's projections, then subtract Prado's projections, the Braves have made a serious offensive upgrade. The Braves had to make a move like this if they wanted to have a chance to win the NL East since the Nationals, at least on paper, look to be the favorites to win the east for a second consecutive season. 
Braves Grade: A- (The Braves should continue to draft well, so replenishing the farm system won't be difficult. Given that they made a significant upgrade at a time when they had to in order to compete for the playoffs, makes me like this trade a lot.)

GM Kevin Towers
The Diamondbacks might regret this move for a season or two, but in the long run I expect them to be declared the winners of this deal. Every player they acquired other than Martin Prado is under team control at a cheap price for a minimum of 5 years. That being said, the Diamondbacks are reportedly looking to finalize a contract extension with Prado. In addition, if Kevin Towers moves Ahmed and another piece to Detroit for Rick Porcello, the Diamondbacks will have incredible pitching and outfield depth as well as great young hitters at catcher, 2nd base, and 1st base. The Diamondbacks are a middle market team, meaning they aren't usually blessed with options, yet this franchise is full of them. Towers has given himself flexibility where it counts. Outfielders can switch positions and lend themselves easily to platoon splitting while pitchers are oft-injured, so having a stock piling of players at both positions gives the Diamondbacks enough backup options to keep them contending with the newly strengthen NL West for years to come. The one possible move that some say will happen and some say shouldn't is a trade of Jason Kubel. Kubel provides a great power bat against right-handed pitching as well as a propensity to hit lots of home runs and doubles in the big alleys at Chase Field. In my opinion, the Diamondbacks should keep Kubel, since even the acquisition of Martin Prado doesn't make up for the offense lost with Upton's relocation. 
Diamondbacks Grade: A (They have everything they want, and more importantly, the options to further improve. If Upton becomes the next Hank Aaron Towers will be pissed, but this trade allows the Dbacks to compete in 2013 as well as 2014-2018.

My Grade: A

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