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Big Trade Unites Upton Brothers in Atlanta

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Arizona Diamondbacks v Tampa Bay Rays

The trade speculation surrounding Justin Upton has been swirling for months. It all came to a head on Wednesday as the Braves and Diamondbacks agreed to a seven-player deal that will unite Justin with older brother B.J. in Atlanta.

Let’s start with the players changing addresses. Atlanta sent the versatile Martin Prado, as well as RHP Randall Delgado, shortstop Nick Ahmed, RHP Zeke Spruill and corner infielder Brandon Drury to Arizona in return for Justin Upton and third baseman Chris Johnson. Those are the pieces, so now it’s time to break this trade down.

Initial reaction…

The storyline was penned as the ink was drying on B.J.’s 5-year deal with the Braves back in November. What a dream scenario it would be if Arizona and Atlanta could find a way to unite the Upton brothers. The topic came up during the press conference and B.J. was obviously excited about the possibility. Now it has become a reality.

Atlanta added a young impact bat just months after Chipper Jones‘ retirement presented questions about how the lineup would cope with his loss. Prado is a free agent at the end of the season and the Braves could have found themselves in a similar scenario as this winter with Michael Bourn. That’s to say, a good but not great player, over 30, looking for max years and max dollars on the open market. That’s not a scenario where you want to feel your hand is being forced to retain the services of a player. Acquiring Johnson gives Atlanta a third base candidate with power potential who comes at a fraction of the price of extending Prado.

What they got…

Atlanta constructed the finest outfield in the National League by acquiring one the most talented young players in all of baseball. They now have three players who have 30-30 potential, play strong defense and are all 28 years of age or younger.

Upton, 25, finished 4th in the NL MVP voting in 2011 while taking home his first silver slugger. This is a former first overall pick who debuted in the big leagues at just 19 years old, is already a two-time All-Star and brings with him that “5-tool player” tag. His 2011 campaign (.289/.369/.529 with 31 homers, 88 RBI’s and 105 R’s) led many media types, talent evaluators, baseball execs and fans alike to believe that he could actually be the MVP as soon as 2012. That prediction may not have come to pass, but Upton’s talent and potential are still tantalizing.

Last year was a frustrating season on many levels for Upton and the Diamondbacks. Still, he turned in a .280/.355/.430 line while scoring a career-high 107 runs. On the flip side, his RBI total fell by 21 and he had 30 fewer extra-base hits in just nine fewer games than in 2011. While it was a step back in what many expected to be a break-out season, the Braves are still getting a phenomenal young talent who is entering the prime of his career. Putting him together with his brother will deliver both comfort and motivation that can be found in a good natured sibling rivalry.

The Braves parting with Prado in the deal meant third base became a top priority. Hence, the D-Backs added the 28-year old Johnson, who they acquired from the Astros last season, to the deal. He has power, and has shown the ability to hit for power and produce runs in parts for four big league seasons. Johnson’s run production totals (171 RBI’s & 121 R’s) are remarkably similar to those of Cardinals third baseman David Freese (177 RBI’s & 142 R’s).

Both debuted in 2009, but Johnson has more extra-base hits (114 XBH’s in 348 games) than Freese (93 XBH’s in 328 games). However, Freese does have two more homers (35) than Johnson (33) in 84 fewer plate appearances. While the two are certainly not carbon copies of one another, it does provide a decent measuring stick for production. Johnson will presumably compete for the starting job at third or serve as part of a platoon with the lefty hitting Juan Fransisco, who turned heads in winter ball after belting nine homers in 192 at-bats for Atlanta last year.

What they gave

We start with the obvious – Prado will be missed for a multitude of reasons. Many wondered aloud how/why the Braves could be going to arbitration with Prado over a $400,000 difference his request ($7.05 MM) and the team’s offer ($6.65 MM). Maybe that was a sign that Atlanta was silently shopping one of its most consistent hitters. Regardless, Prado did everything and more Atlanta has required of him since debuting in 2006. He hasn’t taken the mound, but he has played every position except for catcher.

Prado, who turns 30 on April 23, was an All-Star in 2010 and  has averaged a .294/.342/.436 line since playing his way into the everyday lineup in 2009. Those seasonal averages break down to 12 HR’s, 60 RBI’s and 78 runs scored per 138 games. He battled injury and inconsistency in 2011, only to bounce back and hit .301 while setting career bests in games played (156), hits (186), doubles (42), walks (58) and on-base percentage (.359). Oh, and he played five positions in 2012. Factor in his gritty, competitive nature and popularity among teammates and fans alike and you have a player that any team in baseball would be happy to have. Our friends over at MLB Trade Rumors have already started compiling the links to prove it, since the Diamondbacks are apparently already working toward a deal to keep Prado in the desert for the foreseeable future.

Now for the prospects involved. Delgado, who turns 23 in two weeks, was ranked the #46 prospect in the game by Baseball America prior to 2012. He split time between Atlanta and Gwinnett last season and showed flashes of brilliance in 17 starts for the big club. Overall, Delgado has gone 5-10 with a 3.95 ERA in 25 games (24 starts) in Atlanta. Over 127.2 big league innings, he’s struck out 94 hitters against 56 walks while surrendering 13 homers. With a mid-90s fastball and quality secondary pitches, Delgado fanned 620 hitters in 582.1 minor league innings since signing as a 16-year-old out of Panama in 2006.

Ahmed, 23 on March 15, was a 2nd round selection in 2011 out of the University of Connecticut. He has a good build (6’3″-205 lbs) and plenty of speed. Baseball America rated Ahmed the #11 prospect and best defensive infielder in the Atlanta organization following 2012. He stole 40 bases in 50 attempts during his 130 games spent with High-A Lynchburg last season before playing in the Arizona Fall League. Ahmed found more success there, hitting .288/.361 /.452 with 10 RBI’s and 13 runs scored in 19 contests for the Phoenix Desert Dogs. The AJC’s Dave O’Brien had a great blog highlighting Ahmed’s winter ball performance.  There had been some speculation that the Braves could use Ahmed as part of a trade package, given the team’s refusal to part with Andrelton Simmons.

Spruill, 23, a high school arm nabbed in the 2nd round back in 2008, has been ranked among Baseball American’s Top 10 Braves prospects in three of the last four seasons. He’s had some growing pains – specifically a broken hand suffered after a poor outing in 2009 that led to even more struggles in a truncated 2010 campaign. With that squarely behind him, Spruill matured emotionally and on the mound. His numbers improved between Lynchburg and Double-A Mississippi in 2011 (3.19 ERA in 174.2 IP) and he was tabbed the “Best Control” pitcher in the system by Baseball America after the season. In 2012, Spruill returned to Double-A, where went just 9-11, but walked only 46 batters in 161.2 IP.

Drury, 21, was the last player confirmed to be heading to Arizona in the deal. He was a 13th round pick in 2010 and had some serious steam coming off a successful Appalachian League campaign with Danville in 2011 (.347 with 8 HR and 54 RBI in 63 games). After Baseball America named him the #10 Braves prospect going into 2012, Drury faltered mightily with Rome last year. He batted .229 in 123 games, connecting for just six homers. Neither his strikeout (73) nor his walk (20) totals were particularly high, and Drury did put together a better second half to check in as Baseball America’s #27 prospect in the organization.

What I like about it…

There you have a complete listing of all the players involved. I’m a firm believer that the Braves have added a young impact player – and get this – Upton won’t be bolting anytime soon. His contract over the next 3 years is $38.5 MM, which is less per year than agent Scott Boras was seeking for Bourn. There is no comparison between those two players, but from a financial perspective the Braves got the better man. Of course, you have to factor in the player cost of this trade as well. Atlanta needed to balance its lineup with more right-hand hitters, something general manager Frank Wren accomplished by acquiring the Uptons this winter. I also like the fact that the Braves have managed to set aside a little chunk of money to spend on further improvements this season. They could also utilize the money to sign some young core players to multi-year deals, something that has become more and more common in the game.

By seizing the opportunity to combine Justin and B.J. Upton with Jason Heyward, Atlanta has created an outfield that could rival or perhaps even edge out the Los Angeles Angels trio of Mike Trout, Josh Hamilton and Mark Trumbo. While the Braves aren’t concerned with comparing their outfield with anyone else, they are concerned with putting the best group of players on the field.

Atlanta needed to do something bold in order to close the gap between the Washington Nationals and the rest of the National League East. The outfield trio comprised of two Uptons and Heyward should produce both offensively and defensively. It seems to me that both teams could win this deal, especially if Arizona extends Prado and he continues his quality level of play. Not to mention what all the young talent can do to replenish and bolster the Arizona ranks.

What concerns me…

Let’s go ahead and take a look at all those strikeouts the Braves now have in the lineup. This has been the topic du jour when it comes to the trade. Atlanta added two more players who fanned in excess of 120 times last season to the four players it already had who piled up at least 129 K’s in 2012. It’s not ideal from a traditional perspective, but the way the game is played has changed drastically over the past three decades. Strikeouts from hitters have become more acceptable. Shaking your head? Don’t believe me? Well, Adam Dunn was named the 2012 AL Comeback Player of the Year in a season that saw him bat just .204 and strike out 222 times. How does that happen? (Yes, that’s a rhetorical question.)

I went on a historical fact finding mission, looking over all baseball team statistics by the decade from 1900 to 2012. It wasn’t until the year 1960 that any MLB team combined to strike out over 1,000 times (Philadelphia Phillies with 1054). Teams’ K-totals escalated throughout the 60′s, topping 1,000 on numerous occasions until the mound was lowered in 1969. Then, from 1972 through 1982 only two teams in all of baseball struck out 1,000+ times. Team totals began to escalate again in the 1990′s.

To say that the way the game has changed would be a gross understatement.  Are you ready for the proof? No MLB team struck out fewer than 1,000 times in 2012. Even if the thought of strikeouts continues to frustrate fans, players and executives, those elevated punch-out totals have become more acceptable. That’s why I lean toward not taking Atlanta’s strikeout prone bunch to task here. Let’s wait and see what the numbers look like for situational hitting.

What to take away…

Time will tell for both sides. What can the Braves do with Upton on board? What will Prado and the group of young players do for the Diamondbacks? Obviously, I like the price and years of control Atlanta has with Upton more than what turned out to be a disastrous acquisition of Mark Teixeira in 2007. That deal is a case study on what can happen when you trade young players away and don’t get any sizable return for your investment. And it’s also a topic I don’t care to delve into any further.

Atlanta does not have a prototypical lead-off hitter, but they do have plenty of speed between their outfield trio. They also have a nice group of righty and lefty hitters to mix and match. I’d imagine Justin Upton will see most of his at-bats in the #3 spot in the order. The opportunity to lead off could be given to Simmons, followed by Heyward hitting second (though he might get a chance to lead off as well). Older brother B.J.’s days of hitting atop the lineup are likely behind him. I picture him slotting into the 5-spot, behind clean-up man Freddie Freeman.

But hey, these choices and more are manager Fredi Gonzalez‘ to make. And does he ever have some options.

(Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

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