Well, the Arizona Diamondbacks are getting what they wanted, a team full of gritty dirtballs.
They’ve traded center fielder Chris Young, right-hander Trevor Bauer and right fielder Justin Upton, all for questionable returns. Now let’s see if they can win a World Series with their curious emphasis on toughness over talent.
Why even move Upton?
That has been the question ever since the Diamondbacks started trying to trade him in November 2010. Why were the D-Backs willing to move a gifted young outfielder who was signed to an affordable long-term contract?
We have our answer, now that Upton is headed to the Atlanta Braves in a seven-player trade. The answer actually is quite clear, no matter how the D-backs might try to spin this. Their actions this offseason — and not just with Upton — speak louder than any words.
The Diamondbacks want a certain type of player — single-minded, outwardly intense, fierce. Cody Ross is that kind of player. Martin Prado is that kind of player. Upton, according to one of his former teammates, is not — at least not in the perception of Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson.
“The problem is that he didn’t play with a high level of energy,” said the former teammate, who spoke on the condition that he would not be identified. “What I think they want is guys who play with the speed, energy and intensity of the Oregon football team — all out, all the time.
“Justin doesn’t have that kind of attitude; he has a quiet intensity that doesn’t fit the mold of what KT and Gibby seem to want. He plays hard, but has to look suave doing it. Slamming into walls isn’t his thing, and they will accept nothing short of all-out sacrifice for the team.”
Evidently, it wasn’t enough when Upton hit 31 home runs and finished fourth in the 2011 voting for National League MVP. Evidently, it wasn’t enough that he played through a painful injury to his left thumb in the early part of last season, helping account for his drop in production.
No one questions Upton’s work ethic, but in the words of one rival executive, “he is not a leader, not an all-out hustle type.” Neither is his older brother and new teammate, center fielder B.J. Upton. Both Uptons are so talented, they can make the game look easy — too easy.
Well, give me B.J.’s 25-homer, 30-stolen base ability. Give me Justin’s 40-homer, .900 OPS promise. A team won’t win with 25 Paul O’Neills slamming their helmets or 25 David Ecksteins hustling like crazy. No, a team needs difference-makers. Justin certainly is one, and he’s still only 25. B.J., 28, can be that type of player, too.
Again, what exactly was the problem?
One Diamondbacks player said that Justin is “ready to play every day.” Towers, in a conference call with national reporters, made reference to Upton’s on-field mannerisms and occasional swagger, acknowledging that some might not perceive that him to be the same type of grinder as say, Diamondbacks rookie center fielder Adam Eaton. But he also said that Upton “played hard each and every day.”
“We never had to kick him in the rear to play,” Towers said. “He wanted to be in the lineup, even when hurt. No negatives.”
Towers, though, did not dispute the perception that the Diamondbacks were trying to add “grinders,” specifically citing Prado and one of the prospects in the deal, shortstop Nick Ahmed, as players who “fit the mold.”
“That’s the way Gibby played the game,” Towers said. “Look at our coaching staff, that’s the makeup of our coaching staff as well. That’s how we won (the NL West) in 2011. Justin was part of the 2011 club.
“Different clubs like to look for different intangibles in players. We kind of like that grinding, gritty player – hard-nosed. I’m not saying that Justin isn’t that type of guy … ”
Again, actions speak louder than words.
If Upton’s style rubbed Gibson wrong, then maybe it’s Gibson who should have adjusted, or at least found some sort of middle ground. Twenty-five players, 25 personalities. They can’t all be the same.
Which is not to say that chemistry is unimportant, or that this trade won’t work out well for the D-backs. Prado, 29, will be their new third baseman, and he was arguably the most popular Brave with his teammates. “Wow, I can’t believe they got rid of Prado,” one former Brave told me in a text. “Bad move.”
That player knew full well whom the Braves were getting — Upton and third baseman Chris Johnson — for Prado and four prospects. The Diamondbacks knew what they were getting, too. They clearly valued Prado and Ross, whom they signed to a three-year, $26.5 million free-agent contract, over Upton and Johnson.
The deal soon could look better, too, if the D-backs sign Prado long-term. The team expects to complete such a deal shortly, according to Jack Magruder of Fox Sports Arizona. Prado is eligible for free agency after this season, while Upton is signed for three more years.
The trade of Upton will enable the D-backs to start Eaton in center, improving the team’s speed and defense. The pitching is good and will get better as some of the team’s top prospects reach the majors; right-hander Randall Delgado, another player the D-Backs acquired from the Braves, is the latest to join the mix.
But who is the most feared hitter in the Arizona lineup now? Prado? Ross? Jason Kubel? Miguel Montero?
Not good enough.
“What happened to the Red Sox when Pedro, Schilling, Manny and Varitek left or declined?” one rival executive asked after learning of the trade. “You need impact guys.”
Justin Upton is an impact guy. And the Diamondbacks didn’t want him.