PHOENIX — Now we know the Diamondbacks will trade Justin Upton. They already have, only to have Upton reject a potential deal that would have sent him to Seattle for a package of top prospects last week.
The move continued an ongoing theme. The D-backs spent a lot of time at the winter meetings in trade discussions, and they would have included Upton in the right package for shortstops Jurickson Profar (Texas) or Andrelton Simmons (Atlanta). Both were, and remain to this point, untouchable.
So where do the D-backs go from here? The “Up-town” signage was removed from the right field area at Chase Field last week, a move the D-backs say Upton requested. It is fair to say that Upton has never been comfortable in the marketing spotlight. The timing was curious, however, and the D-backs certainly will keep talking, now with Rangers third base prospect Mike Olt, a possible target.
Because of an outfield excess, it seems a foregone conclusion that the D-backs will part with Upton, Jason Kubel or Gerardo Parra before the start of the regular season. They would need the richest return for Upton, and the Seattle package was just that, with middle infield prospect Nick Franklin and three young pitchers, including one of top prospects in baseball in right-hander Taijuan Walker. Most observers thought the Mariners were giving up too much.
There is no hidden agenda in any of the trade talk. Discussions surrounding players such as Upton are not unusual. They go on regularly because quality, affordable players — Upton is to make $38.5 million over the next three years — always are a buyer’s first inclination. Do not ask and you will not be told. The Upton talks are not messy. They are just public.
Exploration is part of a general manager’s job, and in this case it makes a lot of sense. A savvy team deals from excess.
The fact that Upton’s name has surfaced several times in the last two years speaks more to a potential trading partner’s desire for a big bat than to any perception that the D-backs are hungry to deal him. They could have traded him by now if that were the case. It does reinforce general manager Kevin Towers’ stance that everyone is available in the right package.
Towers is on record as saying the D-backs are playing for this year, not the future, and that any trade will be made with that in mind. Taking those words at face value, we have to assume the team believes Upton’s loss would not be a crippling blow, even if it was for a package of young players.
Yes, Upton was fourth in the NL MVP balloting and had career highs with 31 home runs, 88 RBIs and 21 stolen bases in 2011, his first full season with Kirk Gibson as his manager and first in any form with hitting coach Don Baylor. But Upton fell back last season while dealing with a left thumb injury, and it is fair to wonder if the 2011 numbers represent what can be expected in a normal season or are an outlier for a player who will enter his seventh major league season this spring.
The D-backs would not fret about offense if Upton went away. It would just take a different form. With veterans Miguel Montero, Aaron Hill and Kubel, plus blossoming Paul Goldschmidt, the D-backs should not lack for run producers. Newcomer Cody Ross has had three 20-home run seasons since becoming a regular in 2008, and only one has come in a park — Fenway — as hitter-friendly as Chase Field. If the D-backs can acquire a handful of young talent for Upton, the future risk is further mitigated.
Besides all that, hitting home runs is not the only way to win, and all it takes is a glance at San Francisco to know that. The Giants, winners of two of the last three World Series, have built their team to play in a park where the home run is not a reliable weapon. The game they play — situational hitting, taking the extra base, a solid starting rotation and a shut-down bullpen — plays everywhere, especially in the postseason, when the opposing pitching is better than it is during the regular season. No No. 5 starters pitch in the postseason, and a No. 4 might go once.
An Upton trade, or any involving an outfielder, would enable the D-backs to make room for Adam Eaton, the kind of proficient little-ball player who can kick-start an offense from the top of the order. Eaton showed flashes during his September call-up, and he hit .375 with 47 doubles and 44 stolen bases in the minors, mostly at Class AAA Reno. He has done all he can do there. Eaton gets on base, he takes the extra base, he can catch and throw in center field, and he spews enthusiasm.
Scouts can be glass-half-empty evaluators, but Eaton received universal approval from several at the winter meetings. One all but gushed about his energy level and his prototype leadoff-hitter skill set. Another said even the short major league sample size was enough to convince him that Eaton will have a long, prosperous major league career. It is hard to ignore those evaluations.
The D-backs say they do not have to trade an outfielder, but if they don’t, it will only be because of a failure to find a match.
While it appears unlikely Upton will return, it could happen. Upton said at the end of last season that he considered the trade talk part of the business, and he would not let it affect him. Of course, he had not been in the position of using his veto power to reject a deal then. The D-backs could expect concerns, but they also could expect Upton to proceed with business as usual. If Upton were so upset by repeatedly seeing his name in trade speculation, he could have accepted the trade to Seattle to get away from Arizona and find a fresh start.
The D-backs at one point early in the offseason talked briefly about pairing the Upton brothers in the outfield, after B.J. hit the free agent market. It was not really much of an option, and they knew it. Atlanta signed B.J. to a five-year, $75.25 million deal. In an interview late last season, Justin said he thought it would be fun to play with his brother if the opportunity arose.
While that door seems closed, Atlanta — and Texas — still appear willing to engage. However talks play out moving forward, it seems hard to imagine Upton patrolling right field for the D-backs in the season opener on April Fool’s Day.