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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 KonerkoMike 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.