Justin Upton Trade Would Be a Rarity

The Diamondbacks have made it known that they are open to trading right-fielder Justin Upton. The two-time all-star, who finished fourth in the National League Most Valuable Player voting last season and also tied for 19th in WAR in his age-23 season, is seemingly a cornerstone player. But he has struggled this season, has been openly criticized by his team’s managing general partner and was booed by his hometown fans. The idea of Upton leaving the desert is no longer unimaginable. And such a trade would put him in rare company.

Since 2002, there have been 73 position players who played in at least 300 games by the end of their age-24 seasons. The list includes Upton, who is already up to 663. Of those 73, 13 of them were traded at some point before the end of their age-24 seasons. They are:

Hanley Ramirez 467 2 2005 2008 2101 79 137 0.308 0.379 0.527 0.906
Wily Mo Pena 386 302 2002 2006 1202 62 10 0.261 0.315 0.48 0.795
Delmon Young 605 192 2006 2010 2464 59 33 0.292 0.325 0.435 0.76
Colby Rasmus 420 385 2009 2011 1580 53 20 0.251 0.322 0.432 0.754
Carlos Gonzalez 319 85 2008 2010 1269 51 46 0.299 0.344 0.519 0.864
Adam Jones 473 73 2006 2010 1801 50 32 0.274 0.319 0.427 0.746
Juan Uribe 448 314 2001 2004 1797 47 28 0.266 0.307 0.438 0.744
Lastings Milledge 318 115 2006 2009 1243 29 35 0.267 0.327 0.399 0.727
Dioner Navarro 375 2004 2008 1412 25 5 0.263 0.327 0.376 0.703
Cameron Maybin 305 168 2007 2011 1178 22 59 0.255 0.318 0.386 0.704
Carlos Gomez 445 348 2007 2010 1420 17 77 0.246 0.293 0.349 0.642
Alcides Escobar 350 192 2008 2011 1288 9 40 0.252 0.294 0.339 0.633
Cesar Izturis 498 46 2001 2004 1929 8 50 0.262 0.293 0.342 0.635

* Games played at time of trade

Looking at this list, we can knock out a few comps right away. The first is Dioner Navarro. Not only was he traded multiple times, which makes any comparison difficult, but he is/was also a catcher, and certainly wasn’t in the same class as Upton. Second is Cesar Izturis, who was traded for a career-minor-leaguer and a pitcher who lasted in the majors for only one more season. His deal wasn’t a big deal at the time. Next off our list are two other shortstops: Hanley Ramirez and Alcides Escobar.

To get a comp similar to Upton’s situation, we have to look at guys who were traded when the value wasn’t necessarily at its highest. Ramirez’s hype was incredible at the time, and there are likely some Red Sox fans who are still mad that he was traded (and if you looked at the list of Boston shortstops since 2006, you could see their point). The same is true of Escobar. He was the only major-league-ready piece moved in the Zack Greinke deal but he wasn’t the centerpiece of that trade. Greinke was.

So if we frame it in those terms, we can see the list of comps dwindling. Adam Jones and Carlos Gonzalez were main pieces in the Erik Bedard and Matt Holliday trades, respectively, but they were still both unproven commodities at the time. We can knock off Cameron Maybin and Carlos Gomez’s first trades as well, since they were really the Miguel Cabrera and Johan Santana trades. That leaves us with seven trades:

- 12/02/03 – COL trades Juan Uribe to CWS for Aaron Miles
- 03/20/06 – CIN trades Wily Mo Pena to BOS for Bronson Arroyo
- 11/28/07 – TB trades Delmon Young, Brendan Harris & Jason Pridie to MIN for Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett and Eduardo Morlan
- 11/30/07 – NYM trades Lastings Milledge to WAS for Ryan Church and Brian Schneider
- 11/06/09 – MIN trades Carlos Gomez to MIL for J.J. Hardy
- 11/13/10 – FLO trades Cameron Maybin to SD for Edward Mujica and Ryan Webb
- 07/27/11 – STL trades Colby Rasmus, Trever Miller, Brian Tallet & P.J. Walters to TOR for Edwin Jackson, Marc Rzepczynski, Octavio Dotel, Corey Patterson and cash

One thing sticks out about these in aggregate right away: Six of the seven trades were made during the offseason, with the lone exception being the Colby Rasmus trade. There were similar ill feelings there, though, in that instance it was with the manager, not the owner. D-backs manager Kirk Gibson has generally been supportive of Upton. The timing doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but I do find it interesting.

Looking at the deals, the Uribe and Milledge deals fit the bill of a player with a lot of promise whose value had faded, but the returns for those two players don’t come anywhere near what the return for Upton would be.

But then, perhaps that’s the rub here. Looking at these deals, a lot of them would be for less than you would think, given what we now know about these players, particularly Maybin. But looking back to the chart, we can see that the only players on the list who have played even half as many games as Upton has are Gomez and Rasmus. They both netted all-star players in Hardy and Jackson, respectively, and Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett became very solid players for the Rays, as did Arroyo for the Reds. But these aren’t superstar players or hot-to-trot prospects. If you go back a little further, you could include the Paul Konerko-Mike Cameron deal, but while both players went on to become stars, neither had Upton’s track record at the time. Cameron had hit .229/.315/.376 in 296 games / 946 PA; Konerko was.214/.275/.326 in 81 games and 247 plate appearances.

There are two ways that we can interpret this data. The first would be to say that Upton’s situation is unique: Perhaps a lingering, not fully understood injury has led an owner and fan base to display poor judgment and wrongly drive a franchise player out of town. Or, as David Schoenfield suggested last week, perhaps Upton isn’t as good as many of us would think. And maybe the expectations for what he should net in trade should be tempered.

Justin Upton has shown MVP form in the past. He has not played nearly that well this season, but that is perhaps due to his thumb injury. No matter the reason for the decline, if he is traded, he would put himself in some rare company. Major league hitters his age aren’t traded that frequently, and those who are usually aren’t under long-term contracts with no-trade clauses in them. None of the major league players who have been traded this young in the past decade have been all-stars at the time of their deal; and while the players they returned were solid players — they were neither big-time prospects nor established stars. If Upton had been dealt last offseason, he undoubtedly would have drawn some incredible offers. Perhaps he still will. But given the recent deals for players with similar service time in his age range, it’s fair to wonder if interested teams have reason to hold to a hard line in negotiations.

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Paul Swydan is the co-managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for ESPN Insider. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

37 Responses to “Justin Upton Trade Would Be a Rarity”

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  1. Spike says:

    it wouldn’t even be considered that wild if the Snakes were heading into a rebuild or were buried in the standings. On the contrary, they are not too far off the pace in the NL West.

    There has got to be something going on there behind the scenes which hasn’t been made public. I know it’s tough to keep things under wrap these days but this just doesn’t add up.

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  2. jfree says:

    I think the DBacks owner has really stuck his foot in his mouth and it is going to cost him big time. The team that is the best trade fit seems to be the Rangers – but they don’t need to do this sort of trade until the off-season depending on Josh Hamilton. And the Dbacks front office has created enough bad blood this year that Upton is almost in a Youk-type situation – and it could affect the rest of his season even if the source of the problem was just a thumb injury early on. Which in turn would really lower Upton’s trade value – and might limit trades to a team which really hurts Upton’s longer-term career prospects.

    The Dbacks deserve this. Upton doesn’t.

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    • kid says:

      Where is Justin Upton going to play in Texas? They have a LF and a RF.

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      • jfree says:

        Every team in baseball has a LF and a RF.

        +24 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • kid says:

        Are you going to recommend a Victorino to Pittsburgh trade next? Or no, wait – the Dodgers!

        Texas Rangers currently have players who are as good or better than Justin Upton at both corner outfield spots. Upton can’t play center, and Texas’ DH spot is clogged up with the likes of D. Murphy, Napoli, Mike Young and probably Mitch Moreland once he’s back. Makes no sense for Texas to pick him up, unless they’re convinced that he can magically move to CF

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      • Adam D says:

        uh… he would slot into LF, and move Hamilton over to CF. Easy move for the Rangers who moved Josh out of CF because they were concerned about the wear and tear on his body, but with Upton around, they don’t have to worry about it since they won’t be re-signing Hambone.

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      • Jared-H says:

        What he meant by “depending on Josh Hamilton” was if Hamilton does not resign with the Rangers, then the Rangers would make a good trading partner as they would suddenly have a need to replace an all star caliber outfielder.

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      • junker23 says:

        Upton was a CF coming up through the minors, moved because of Chris Young. Could always move him back.

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      • BlackOps says:

        Yeah, who said he can’t play CF? At the very least he could fake it – he’s had good defensive metrics for years.

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    • Taylor says:

      A trade to the Rangers would make more sense if it happened in the offseason

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  3. CabreraDeath says:

    Considering that Justin Upton has never been traded, the title of this article is dead-on.

    +14 Vote -1 Vote +1

  4. Hmm says:

    If Upton was on the Rockies this article would have mentioned Upton’s career

    Home .302/.385/.539(2012 .279 .356 .443 – .333 BABIP)
    Road .249/.327/.413(2012 .252 .339 .340 – .325 BABIP)

    but hey Upton was an MVP candidate in 2011

    Home .333/.411/.622
    Road .246/.328/.439

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    • Hmm says:

      not saying Upton isn’t good, just sick of FG writers ignoring the H/R splits of 29 teams

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      • KyleL says:

        I think a lot of it is because Coors is known as a launching pad, while Chase is more of a 2B/3B park (I know that doesn’t change how much of a hitter’s park each is, but it does affect the perception of each). Also, while Chase is a good hitter’s park, it’s not in the same league as Coors (no park really is).

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      • Hmm says:

        Actually Yankees stadium is much more of a HR Park to either hand than Coors,

        Coors Park Factor
        103-2B 120-3B 122-HR for LHB
        118-2B 166-#B 120-HR for RHB

        Chase Park Factor
        115-2B 172-3B 114-HR for LHB
        117-2B 168-3B 104-HR for RHB

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      • Sleight of Hand Pro says:

        what does yankee stadium have to do with anything?

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    • well... says:

      people still talk about the Rockies?

      oh wait, I just proved your point. try coming back when you aren’t losing 100 games!! ahahahahahahaha Go Giants

      -15 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Hmm says:

        Funny I remember the Giants losing 100 Games in 85, and 181 games in 07-08 enjoy your window.

        Rockies Road 4.57ERA
        Giants Road 4.85ERA

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      • Mcneildon says:

        Well…you showed him! Wow, I bet he’ll never come back to Fangraphs again. Not after that statistically-based beatdown. But you don’t concern yourself with trifles like that. You’re too busy polishing that 2010 World Series ring you got for being a fan of the Giants.

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    • Dave says:

      I can’t reply to the comment where you said it, but those handedness park factors are entirely made up. Or at least nowhere near those I found on fangraphs’ own “Guts!” page.

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  5. kid says:

    Upton is miscast as a true #3 hitter, that’s one problem. The team has thrust him into that role and left him there, struggles and all. Maybe he’s one of these guys who wilts when the pressure is on, and thrives when less is expected of him? The peripherals don’t show any regression in skill – other than the curiously low HR/FB rate this year – so there’s a good chance that whatever is ailing him is something not directly related to his baseball abilities.

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  6. STEALTH says:


    What place should he be cast in? If he’s not a 3 or 4 hitter, I don’t know what he is. As you say, kid, he is ailing, the likely culprit being a nagging wrist injury. I can think of exactly 25 MLB teams that should be interested in Justin Upton (uninterested teams being the Pirates, Rays, Jays and, surprisingly, the Royals).

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    • Mark says:

      Every team in baseball should be interested.

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    • kid says:

      Is this rhetoric? Still possesses good on-base skills and speed, bat him 1st or 2nd, or hell, 5th or 6th. It’s simple arithmetic – there are 9 spots in the order, 8 if you exclude the pitcher. I suggested moving him out of the 3rd and 4th spots for a while, so with a total of 8 available lineup spots, minus 2 (3rd and 4th), you’re left with 6 different spots for him to hit. Is that clear enough?

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  7. #teamteddy says:

    It needs to be reiterated: Kevin Towers knows what he has in Justin Upton. Nobody is going to be buying low for an age-24 franchise player with a very friendly contract. I couldn’t see him going to Pittsburgh for anything less than Marte/Grossman + Cole/Taillon + Hanson, or something similar. That being said, if Arizona is able to get that kind of package back, they should accept. There really aren’t that many TRULY untouchables in baseball.

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  8. chuckb says:

    2 things stand out when looking at Upton’s numbers: his high ground ball rate and his high contact rate on balls out of the zone. If he were hitting fly balls like he has throughout his career there might not be talk of trading him b/c he’d have more homers. Maybe the fact that he’s putting more balls outside the zone in play explains the increased GB rate.

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  9. Mr Punch says:

    The rarity here is that Upton has been really good (without getting into just how good) – in the major leagues – when he was very young, and might be traded. Not one of the possible comps you list comes close to fitting that description. (The closest of the lot might be Ramirez a couple of years back, but not Ramirez when he was traded.)

    Try this question: How many players have finished in the top 5 in MVP voting and then been traded before they turned 25? I bet that’s a very short list.

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  10. Mr Punch says:

    BTW, my suggested comp is a blast from the past, Ruben Sierra. This is a guy who was very good very young — but a long-term big-money contract such as we’ve seen lately would have been a mistake.

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  11. Matt T says:

    My gut says he stays in Arizona. However if he does get dealt I think he will end up in Toronto. They have the young talent needed to get a deal done.

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