Rumors have swirled around Justin Upton for some time now. The Diamondbacks are reportedly considering dealing the man once considered their franchise right fielder.
Upton, then 23, was a major player in last season’s Most Valuable Player award race. His .289/.369/.529 line (good for a 140 wRC+) earned him fourth place honors behind just Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp and Prince Fielder. This year, Upton’s line is down to .273/.353/.401 (a 97 wRC+), and the sound bites are piling up. The Diamondbacks “are not convinced that Upton is a winning player,” Ken Rosenthal reported on Thursday. The Arizona Republic’s Dan Bickley called for the Diamondbacks to trade Upton that same day.
If the Diamondbacks were to deal Upton, they would be traversing an overgrown path. Teams rarely trade players as young and talented as Upton. On Monday, Paul Swydan covered some historical comparables dating back to 1995. But it’s worth adding another name to the pile: the Gary Sheffield trade of 1993.
It’s a convenient comparison for one reason in particular: Both players were coming off tremendous age-23 seasons the year preceding the never-ending trade rumors.
Sheffield grabbed a third-place MVP finish by hitting .330/.385/.580 in 1992. Although Sheffield was a horrible third baseman, his 6.8 Wins Above Replacement score is comparable to Upton’s 6.4 figure from last season. Sheffield also struggled throughout the early part of the 1993 campaign. He carried a .262/.322/.446 line into June. Annoyed by the trade rumors, Sheffield complained publicly, as broadcast in the June 13 edition of the Milwaukee Sentinel.
High-priced third baseman Gary Sheffield is angry about the San Diego Padres’ penny-pinching ways and about rumors that he is going to be traded.
“They cry about money and everything, so get rid of me,” the former Milwaukee Brewers player said Sunday after a 2-1 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in San Diego. “I’m tired of hearing about trades. If you’re going to trade me, trade me.”
“Everybody knows I want to stay in San Diego. If they don’t want to keep me, what else can I do? I’m tired of playing for a team when I don’t know if I’ll be here today or tomorrow.”
Unsurprisingly, Sheffield’s comments quickened the Padres’ pace, as did a June 17 arrest (which sounds similar to Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson’s recent run-in with Houston police). The Padres shipped Sheffield to the Florida Marlins a week later, acquiring a package of Andres Berumen, Jose Martinez and Trevor Hoffman, while also including Rich Rodriguez.
By all accounts, Upton’s character is not the issue Sheffield’s was. Upton owns a publicly-recognized work ethic, has not demanded a trade, and has not gotten himself dealt from another organization, as Sheffield had. Yet, one of the Diamondbacks owners, Ken Kendrick, made negative comments about Upton (as well as shortstop Stephen Drew) on XTRA 910 sports radio on June 5:
After acknowledging the thumb Upton injured in the first series of the season, Kendrick said on the radio, “He’s certainly not the Justin Upton that he has been in the past and that we would expect of him. He’s 24 years old, and it’s time for him to be a consistent performer and right now this year he’s not been that.”
The Padres’ return for Sheffield was not particularly exciting. Hoffman, of course, turned into one of the all-time greats. Nobody had a clue of his potential at the time. After all, Hoffman had a 3.28 ERA in his rookie year with the Marlins, and just a 26:19 strikeout-to-walk ratio—this after the Cincinnati Reds left him unprotected in the 1993 expansion draft.
Berumen was nothing exciting; a 27th-round draft pick snatched as the 45th pick of the expansion draft. He appeared in 37 games for the Padres in 1995 with a 5.48 ERA and 4.73 FIP, then appeared in three more in 1996 before never reaching the majors again.
Martinez, a right-handed pitcher, was supposed to be the jewel. Baseball America ranked him the game’s 68th-best prospect entering the 1993 season. He appeared in four games in 1994 for the Padres before washing out of professional baseball by 1995.
Here’s the rub for Arizona. It’s nowhere near out of the question that Upton turns things around. Sheffield did it by posting a 141 wRC+ in 1994 followed by seasons of a 182 wRC+ and 183 wRC+ in 1995 and 1996. But other teams will not pay Arizona for that superstar potential. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that Upton’s upside is greater than any prospect Arizona can receive in return. The necessary leverage just doesn’t exist — a team’s willingness to trade such a talented player simply raises too many questions.
What really speaks to the oddity of the situation is the extenuating circumstances around the Sheffield trade. Parting the mercurial outfielder’s outspokenness and legal issues could be justified. The Padres could point to Sheffield’s attitude and say, “Look, he’ll never reach his potential here by acting like that.” With Upton, there are no such signs outside of rumors about a degenerative shoulder condition.
There’s no denying Upton’s season to date as a disappointment. But is it disappointing to the extent that Arizona is willing to sell low on the face of their franchise? Given the vote of confidence from Upton’s manager, Kirk Gibson, and his excellent personal reputation, it’s difficult to fathom. The rumors will continue, but Upton’s trade value might dip below the point of a reasonable return if they persist for too long.
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