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Arizona didn't get enough for Upton

1/24/2013

The Atlanta Braves didn't specifically need Justin Upton to be playoff contenders again in 2013, but having him certainly helps. Because they got him for about 50 cents on the dollar, they should be over the moon about the deal they wrapped up Thursday, which restores what they lost with Michael Bourn's departure and sets them up well for the two years that follow as well.

Even though he played hurt through much of the season, Upton was still valuable in 2012, just nowhere close to his full potential when healthy and his timing at the plate is right, as it was in 2011 when he was worth around six wins above replacement. Upton has some of the best bat speed and strongest wrists in the game, generating hard contact and easy power, similar to Andrew McCutchen when he's squaring up the ball consistently.

In 2012, Upton's timing was off for much of the year, and he was popping up a lot of pitches on the inner half that the year before he would have driven to the left-center gap or out of the park. Much of this probably was tied to a thumb injury he suffered in the third game of the season but never addressed with time off. Hand injuries of any sort tend to sap power by reducing a hitter's ability to make hard contact, and that was a major issue for Upton all year.

Defensively, he is an outstanding right fielder who will be just as good in left, assuming Atlanta leaves Jason Heyward -- himself a plus-plus glove in right -- in his current spot.

Way too much has been made of Upton's home/road splits; talented players in extreme parks often produce extreme splits where neither half measures their true talent, with Matt Holliday a solid recent example. Upton's ability to hit and hit for power has never been tied to the ballpark but rather to his bat speed, his wrist acceleration and his eye at the plate.

If he is healthy in 2013 and gets some support from his new coaching staff, he should become a top-10 player in the league again, and at an average of just under $13 million a year for the next three seasons, he'll be a relative bargain for his new employers.

Atlanta also gets Chris Johnson as a throw-in who might split time at third base with Juan Francisco in what probably will be the team's weakest position unless they have one more move up their sleeves. But the overall improvement is worth creating this small and perhaps temporary void in their lineup. They weren't going to be able to directly replace the retired Chipper Jones, especially not in a terrible offseason market for third-base help, but the net result is about as positive as Atlanta fans could have hoped for.

Did Arizona get enough?

The Diamondbacks' new strategy seems to be to trade any player that manager Kirk Gibson doesn't like, regardless of the reason. For the second time this offseason, they've made such a deal and taken less than full value in return for a player the whole industry knew the team wanted to move. At some point, they're going to have to stop blaming the players.

Arizona's return boils down to this: one year of Martin Prado, six years of a fifth starter in Randall Delgado, two fringy prospects and one non-prospect. If that sounds like a good deal to you, I have some beachfront property in Phoenix to sell you.

Prado is a versatile player who will probably be Arizona's full-time third baseman, solving a need for the club in 2013 but at an exorbitant cost since he is a free agent after the 2013 season. He is an above-average defender at third who generates most of his offensive value with high contact rates; when he hits .300, which he has done four times in the past five seasons, he is potentially a three- to four-win player at third base. (His WAR figures overstate his value somewhat with inflated defensive figures in left field.) He doesn't walk much or have power, nor is that likely to change given his age -- he might creep up closer to 20 homers playing 90 games a year in Chase Field and Coors -- so this is a bet that he'll keep making contact and fill the void at third. That's enough to offset the loss of Upton's bat and glove for one season.

Delgado is a fastball/changeup guy in search of an average breaking ball, without success so far, surviving by changing speeds and keeping the two-seamer down enough to generate ground balls. If he were to bump up his control by a grade or two, he has a chance to be league-average in some years, but the lack of an average curveball or slider will make it hard for him to miss enough bats. He reminds me in some ways of Pat Corbin, another changeup guy who is serviceable in the back of the rotation but who looked dynamite out of the pen in brief stints for Arizona in 2012. (You can be very good in a relief role with only two pitches.)

Nick Ahmed was the ninth-best prospect in Atlanta's system, a good defensive shortstop with a plus-plus arm but little offensive upside. He loads his hands very deep, leading to a long swing, and doesn't have the plate discipline to allow him to compensate.

Zeke Spruill was seventh on my Atlanta rankings, with a low-90s fastball that has some tailing life, keeping the ball down but not enough to make him a true ground-ball guy. He has an average slider in the 82-84 mph range and a hard changeup (almost split-like) in the 85-87 range that was very effective against left-handed hitters this year, giving him no platoon split at all in Double-A. He is very slight of build and tends to sling the ball a little from a low three-quarters slot, so I don't know how durable he is. Add in the fact that he doesn't miss a lot of bats with three average pitches and it doesn't bode well for him to be more than a back-end starter.

It's not a coincidence that both players, like Didi Gregorius (acquired in the Trevor Bauer trade), played in the Arizona Fall League last year, where Arizona GM Kevin Towers could see them personally.

The last player in the deal, Brandon Drury, is a non-prospect, with no performance behind him and no clear position. I wouldn't trade Upton's 2014 and 2015 seasons, at good prices, for these four young guys. That is, in effect, what Arizona did.