Justin Upton Trade Opens A Window For The Braves And Ends An Era For The D’backs

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Monday, February.04,  2013

Justin Upton leaves Arizona on a down year after finishing 2012 with .280/.355/.430 slash line and only 17 HRs.

Justin Upton leaves Arizona on a down year after finishing 2012 with .280/.355/.430 slash line and only 17 HRs.

By Nicholas Rossoletti (MLB Reports Trade Correspondent):

What many Arizona Diamondback fans once considered the unthinkable happened last week.  The team decided to part with 25-Year-Old Right Fielder, Justin Upton. Upton was the franchise’s top draft pick in 2005, its Number 1 prospect in 2007 according to Baseball America, its best player in both the 2009 and 2011 seasons based upon Wins Above Replacement and the 13th best position player in the Major Leagues in 2011 as he added 6.4 Wins to the D’Backs.

The D’Backs shipped Upton to Atlanta where he will be reunited with his brother, BJ Upton, and in doing so, the team ended a relationship with another of its first round picks. None of Arizona’s top picks from 2003 through 2011 are still with the franchise. Upton was the type of player that teams normally build around especially at 25 Years Pld. Instead the D’Backs determined it was better to use Upton to acquire 5 pieces that they hope will provide several building blocks to replace the one they gave away. In that way, Upton still provided the D’Backs with foundation even when he is no longer playing for them.

Justin Upton Highlights Mature Lyrics so Parental Guidance is Advised:

Justin will reunite with his brother B.J and young superstar Jason Heyward rounds out the fully 5 Tool OF,  They clubbed 72 HRs and had 70 SB despite slow production from Justin.

Justin will reunite with his brother B.J – and young superstar Jason Heyward rounds out the fully 5 Tool OF. They clubbed 72 HRs and had 70 SB in 2012 despite slow production from Justin Upton.

Rumors have swirled as to whether Upton demanded the D’Backs trade him or whether GM Kevin Towers was set on dealing Upton in an effort to re-stock his franchise with talent. Whichever is true, Upton was certainly coming off a down season in 2012. Last season was almost a mirror image of Upton’s 2010. Upton’s power stats were down across the board from 2011. Last week, in the Mike Morse review, I talked a bit about looking at a player’s ISO (isolated power) to understand a player’s progression or regression offensively. I think this as good a place to start as any on the analysis of Justin Upton.

Upton hit 17 HRs in 2012, which was down from 31 in 2011. It wasn’t just a decrease in home runs that is a disturbing trend for Upton. He also had a large decrease in Doubles during the 2012 season. Not surprisingly, Upton’s ISO was down almost 90 points from .240 in 2011 to .150 in 2012. When we take a further look, the power decrease can be directly tied to a decrease in the number of fly balls Upton was hitting last year. Upton’s Fly Ball Percentage (FB%) was down from 44.8% to 35.6%, and his Ground Ball Percentage (GB%) inversely increased from 36.9% to 43.8%. The problem with this regression from Upton is simply that his 2012 numbers look more like his numbers in 2009 and 2010, which means we have to at least wonder whether the power display in 2011 was the statistical outlier in the group.

Another worrisome trend for the Braves is Upton’s sudden defensive struggles in 2012. Upton went from a top 20 defensive outfielder the previous three seasons and the eleventh best fielding outfielder in 2011 according to to the 35th best outfielder in 2012. This was a large cause in his decrease in Wins Added last year as he regressed from his role as an elite defensive outfielder. His UZR (ultimate zone rating) fell from 7.7 in 2011 to -2.1 in 2012. While no defensive metric is ever a perfect measurement, it is clear that Upton took a step back defensively, which is discouraging given that he is still in his mid-20’s and one would expect at least 3 to 4 years of elite defensive performance before regression.

As we move forward, it seems like the Braves acquired a player whose power and defense diminished substantially, and yet, based on the title of this article (and my preview of it for those of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook), I believe that the Upton acquisition opens a championship window for the Atlanta Braves. This would seem to contradict my normal reliance on sabermetrics and trend towards popular thought. Maybe it does, but I think we can quantify how important Upton is. Before we get there though, let’s take a look at some very simple facts. Upton is 25 Years Old. As such, he is still outside of what would be considered his prime. He is not cheap, but he is reasonably priced over the course of the next three seasons at 9.75 Million this year, 14.25 Million next year and 14.75 Million in 2015. He is coming off his worse season in four years, which is one of the reasons why he was available. To put it in finance terms, the Braves bought a blue chip stock at its lowest point in years. Could they be wrong? Sure. But opportunities to buy players like Upton at his age are few and far between.

A cursory review of the rest of his statistical profile paints a fairly strong picture that the Braves did not buy damaged goods. Upton’s BB% was up from 2011 and above league average, his K% was in line with his previous seasons and about league average and his Line Drive Rate (LD%) was at a three-year high. If we see a rebound from Upton in his defense and power, the Braves have acquired one of the elite outfielders in the game. In addition to Upton, the Braves acquired Chris Johnson, who will man Third Base for the Braves and take over for the retired, Chipper Jones. As far as additional pieces for a trade, Chris Johnson is hardly a poor one for the Braves. Johnson was worth 1.7 WAR last year as he compiled a slash line of .281/.326/.451. Johnson isn’t an elite talent, but he will serve as a league average third baseman. His K% is above league average, his BB% is below league average and his BABIP is consistently above league average. While none of that is particularly impressive offensively, Johnson does consistently hit for above the league average on-line drives which should allow him to help increase the run production for the Braves. In the end, this trade wasn’t about Johnson, but he helped make it happen by allowing the Braves to part with Martin Prado who was slated to be the Braves starting Third Baseman this season.

On the D’Backs end of the deal, this trade will always be seen as the sale of Justin Upton. It would take nothing short of World Series championship in which several of the acquired pieces contributed for the Arizona fans to see this any differently. While this may be an unfair way to judge the trade, it is rare that you deal a talent like Upton and therefore, anything short of the best possible results will lead to heavy criticism of the move. The key Major League piece in this deal is Martin Prado. Prado is coming off his best season ever in 2012. Prado’s power numbers were arguably better in 2009 and 2010, but in 2012, Prado rebounded from a very rough previous season, returned to his traditional numbers specifically Prado has traditionally had a BABIP that sits in the .330 range. In 2011, his Batting Average on Balls in Play decreased into the .266 range. As is traditional with BABIP as a statistic, Prado’s regressed back to his career mean in 2012 and his average increased. Prado has been very consistent in what he gives a team offensively over his career with the exception of 2011 when he missed a stretch of games with a staph infection. Prado is a batter who does not strike out often and makes contact with 90% of the pitches he swings at. He has fairly good bat control, but Prado does not offer a particularly spectacular power profile for Third Base. This is really where we have to examine the D’Backs acquisition of Prado.

Prado is coming off his most complete season as a Major Leaguer.  He was worth 5.9 Wins Above Replacement in 2012.

Prado is coming off his most complete season as a Major Leaguer. He was worth 5.9 Wins Above Replacement in 2012.

I started the Prado review by discussing how 2012 was Prado’s best season in the Major Leagues. Even a brief review of his offensive statistics tell us that 2012 wasn’t his best season with the bat. It was, however, his best year with the glove. The Braves were one of the elite defensive outfields in baseball as they had Jason Heyward and Michael Bourn post UZR ratings in excess of 20 (think about UZR or Ultimate Zone Rating in similar terms to Defensive Runs Saved). Prado was a key to this spectacular outfield as he was good for a UZR of 16.6 and a DRS of 12. When you add in some above average to very good play at Third Base and Shortstop, it is obvious that Prado’s 5.9 WAR is driven considerably by defense. Considering that the D’backs just signed Prado to a reasonable 4 year, 40 million dollar deal, he is someone I think the Arizona fans will come to like quite a bit.

In addition to Prado, the D’backs have used this trade to rebuild depth both at the Major League level and in the Minors. Arizona acquired Randall Delgado, who was rumored in several different trade scenarios including mid-season rumors for Ryan Dempster before getting moved to Phoenix. Delgado should break camp with the D’backs as their 5th starter – and his Minor League profile is one that shows a player who could be successful at the Major League level. Delgado has profiled as a big K, big BB pitcher throughout his career. The problem in his Major League stints is that the Big K numbers just have not been there. The good news is that in 2012, Delgado got his K/9 rate up to 7.38, which is a substantial improvement on his brief stint with the team in 2011. With that being said, Arizona would love to see Delgado increase that ratio to his Minor League ratios, which sat in the 8-10 K/9 range. Clearly, the team would also love to see Delgado’s BB rate decrease, but nothing in his last two seasons indicates that is a realistic expectation. As is, the D’Backs will have a young pitcher to coach who sits in the low-90’s with the ability to touch the mid-90’s on his fastball.

Throughout the off-season, the D’backs made no secret of their effort to obtain a shortstop of the future. They traded uber-propsect Trevor Bauer in order to acquire light hitting, heavy glove Didi Gregorius from the Reds. The third largest piece in the Upton deal was Nick Ahmed. Ahmed may be best known in the baseball world as a crucial piece to that terrific 2011 UConn Huskies team. His time in the Minors with the Braves has been good but not great. He seems to be about a .270 or so hitter at the Minor League level, but he adds another young shortstop, which is a position General Manager Kevin Towers identified early as a need position.

The D'backs hope Ahmed will be able to one day in the near future be their everyday shortstop.

The D’backs hope Ahmed will be able to one day in the near future be their everyday Shortstop.

Arizona also acquired Minor League Right Handed Pitcher, Zeke Spruill. Spruill has been a farm hand in the Braves system for five seasons and just found his way to Double-A in 2012 where he put-up a 3.63 ERA in 27 starts. Spruill strikes me as a depth arm as his K numbers do not indicate an ability to get even Minor Leaguers to swing and miss at his stuff. He will be 24 at the end of this season. If there isn’t a significant development this season, I think you have to assume that it would be unlikely for Spruill to be anything but a depth piece to be used in case of a serious string of injuries. The D’backs also picked up 20-Year Old First Baseman, Brandon Drury. Drury hasn’t seen any action above the Single-A level of the Minor Leagues, and his time spent at A ball last year was unimpressive as he only hit .231 with a .335 Slugging Percentage. We can’t say too much about Drury right now other than the D’backs are hoping his 2011 production at Rookie ball starts to show itself this year at A ball.

It’s easy to call the Braves the winner of this trade because they got the most talented piece by far in Upton, however, it would not be fair to judge the D’Backs too harshly. Prado is an excellent addition for a reasonable price tag. Both Delgado and Ahmed should have the opportunity to help the D’Backs in Arizona in either 2013 or 2014. Overall, it’s never easy to say goodbye to a favorite player, but Arizona determined (or was told by the player depending on who you believe) that now was the time to deal Upton. They got a pretty good return on their investment. Now to sit back and see if the Upton can help the Braves overtake the Nationals and whether the new look D’backs can chase the big spending Dodgers and World Champion Giants.

Martin  Prado made an ALL-Star team with the Braves in 2010 when he hit .307 and scored 100 runs in 140 Games. He also finished in the top 10 for NL MVP voting that year. He is a consistent .300 with some pop. He has hit for a .300+ Avg. in 4 of the last 5 years.  His Career 3 Slash Line is .295/.345/.780.

Martin Prado made an ALL-Star team with the Braves in 2010 when he hit .307 – and scored 100 runs in 140 Games. He also finished in the top 10 for NL MVP voting that year. He is a consistent .300 with some pop. He has hit for a .300+ Avg. in 4 of the last 5 years. His Career 3 Slash Line is .295/.345/.780.

*** The views and opinions expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of and their partners***

A big thank-you goes out to Our ‘Trade Correspondent’ Nicholas Rossoletti for preparing today’s featured article. Nicholas is a young professional living in downtown Miami.  He is a lifelong baseball fan and an avid Yankee supporter.  Having grown up during the last two decades, he counts Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera as his favorite ball players of all time.  He believes in sabermetrics and that new stats have already changed the way the baseball industry sees players.  He was for Trout over Cabrera, he thinks RBIs tell you a lot more about a team than a player and that defense and pitching, ultimately, win championships.  Rational thought and introspective analysis over the narrative is how we come to understand the game we love.  The narrative is just a way to keep those who don’t really love the game watching.   Feel free to follow Nicholas on twitter and talk the game of baseball

 “There are three things in my life which I really love: God, my family, and baseball. The only problem – once baseball season starts, I change the order around a bit.” ~Al Gallagher, 1971

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Posted on February 4, 2013, in MLB Teams: Articles and Analysis, The Rest: Everything Baseball and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Upton’s numbers last season start to make much more sense when you consider he dealt with a thumb injury for most of the season. Of course his contact rates are going to suffer. Also, UZR fluctuates wildly from year to year even for well known elite defenders. And considering he averaged like ~6 in the previous 3 years, the -2.1 is obviously an extreme outlier.

    • First, thank you for reading. Upton’s contact rate was actually up. It was his power that was down. Could it have been a thumb injury? I’m sure its possible. At his age, it would make sense that an injury had something to do with it, but it was a large decrease in power and I’m not sure how a thumb injury would affect loft on the baseball. As for his UZR, the point of the article was exactly that it was a strange and huge decrease that I feel does not flow with who he is. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have titled the article that the Braves were opening a championship window. That being said, I feel I have to point out the potential flaws on a player coming off probably his worst season overall in four years.

  2. Not that I’m an expert, but a hand injury that affects how well you can grip a bat is sure to decrease power. If you’ve ever tried swinging a bat with a sore thumb, its possible, but impossible to do so with any authority. His results got progressively better as the season finished, as his thumb was finally getting healthy. The onus ultimately falls on Upton, though, as he refused to go to the DL to allow his thumb to heal properly. I’m only pointing all this out because looking at just the stats without context leads one to believe that this 25 YO slugger just suddenly lost his power for no reason.

    • I think we are probably just saying the same thing in different ways, which is that Upton’s 2012 shouldn’t be seen as an indicator that the Braves made a poor decision. I think you are probably right on the power dipping due to his injury. In 2010, when his stats were very similar to 2012, he suffered from a right oblique strain.

  3. This Trade of Justin Upton has many different views regarding who it was better for I will let time take of that and instead will focus on Justin And how I believe this will play out for the Braves First off Arizona with Towers and Gibson in couldn’t wait to get rid of Justin. Why that is question and don’t believe we know the answer however there are indications that there were great concerns around his potential VS. His Performance as well as his attitude Athough you won’t get anybody from Arizona to admit this Strictly from a numbers point of view he never achieved his so called potential during the time he played in Arizona.Teams don’t win championships based on potential Because he is young he good be a late bloomer .However I will believe when I see it I admit that most of what know about Justin is what’s been written.However I am much more familiar with BJ Upton and he has great potential too but his track record while in Tampa left much to be desired In addition he did have attitude problems in Tampa Bay.In essence, both of these young man need to work hard and produce numbers that reflect there potential All of that being said it’s my view that Atlanta is risking a lot in taking these Boys on. I like the potential but both there Track Records worry me I believe the Jury is out on the Upton boys Based on the various facts that are known I believe Arizona new what they were doing.In addition, both needed a change pf scenery and now that they have that let’s see what happens

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