The Arizona Diamondbacks entered the 2012 offseason looking to deal from an outfield surplus. A multiplicity of rumors made it look like they were going to do exactly that, but instead they have done the exact opposite, signing Cody Ross to a 3-year deal to made their glut of outfielders an even more pressing issue. At this point, there has to be a trade coming, right? Only time will tell what the Diamondbacks decide to do- but the move that everyone is waiting for is a trade of enigmatic star outfielder Justin Upton. After Upton was rumored to be heading to the Tampa Bay Rays to replace his brother B.J. Upton, could we see that trade finally coming together?
Before we even talk about Justin Upton being traded, GM Kevin Towers said following the Diamondbacks’ recent 3-team blockbuster trade that they were “highly unlikely” to trade Upton. However, that was before the Diamondbacks changed the game by signing Ross, and you know that Towers receives the right offer he would trade anyone on their team. Could the Rays be an option? Just about every speculated trade that would send Justin Upton to the Rays involved the Rays dealing James Shields to the D-Backs. Of course, that is impossible now after the Rays traded Shields along with Wade Davis to the Kansas City Royals for Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery, and Patrick Leonard. Wouldn’t it be bizarre for the Rays to carry out a trade like the Shields trade that was geared towards the future and then go in the opposite direction by dealing young players and/or prospects for Upton? Yes, but at the same time the Rays have been juggling the present and future for a while now and you can’t rule anything out for certain. The Shields trade gives the Rays some payroll flexibility that would make absorbing Upton’s contract a little bit easier. Upton will make 9.75 million dollars in 2013 before seeing his salary jump to 14.25 million dollars in 2014 and 14.5 million dollars in 2015, figures that the Rays would rather not pay, but if they believe Upton can really be a superstar and receive some money from Arizona in a possible deal, that won’t deter them from pursuing a deal. Even if the Rays might theoretically consider pursuing Upton, though, what could they offer the Diamondbacks?
The Diamondbacks main needs were previously a shortstop and an elite starting pitcher. They crossed shortstop off their list by acquiring Didi Gregorius and other than David Price, what other topflight starting pitcher could the Rays deal for Upton? A deal would have to be built around Jeremy Hellickson, not a top-of-the-rotation pitcher at these point, but a pre-arbitration player who has managed a 3.02 ERA in the AL East the last two years and has made strides towards adding his curveball as a third plus pitch in his repertoire behind his fastball and changeup. The Diamondbacks would be interested in him but would undoubtedly want more than Hellickson for Upton. When we discussed a possible trade before, we mentioned a package of Hellickson and top shortstop prospect Hak-Ju Lee for Upton, but that appears to be off the table now. One possible alternative could be for the Rays to deal an outfielder back. What about Hellickson and Matt Joyce for Upton? Joyce has been really good overall the last two seasons, managing a .260/.344/.455 line (124 OPS+), but unbelievably inconsistent, having a few months where it was impossible to get him out (hitting .414 in May of 2011 and managing an OPS over .900 in April and May of 2012) and looking completely lost at other times, and then there’s the fact that he struggles against left-handed pitching. Upton and Joyce have both had their share of ups and downs, but the difference is that Upton has superstar potential while Joyce is at best a very good player but not a star. Nevertheless, it would be pretty amazing for the D-Backs to trade Upton and get a player back who actually had a better OPS+ than him in 2012 and basically the same mark the last two years (Joyce was at 124 while Upton managed a 125 mark). Acquiring Joyce would give the Diamondbacks an outfielder with a chance to be better than Upton if Upton never truly blossoms into a superstar and worst-case scenario is a good player who won’t even be arbitration-eligible until next year. Acquiring Joyce would also give the D-Backs the opportunity to trade Jason Kubel in addition to Upton knowing that Joyce and top prospect Adam Eaton could step in without much of a hitch.
While the Hellickson and Joyce package might be worth a thought for Kevin Towers, would the Rays possibly offer it? Love Hellickson or hate him, he’s lined up to be their number two starter next season. A Shields-less rotation was already a downgrade for the Rays (unless Matt Moore goes David Price 2010 and follows a tough rookie year with a Cy Young-worthy sophomore season), and taking out Hellickson as well makes it pretty weak. You would have David Price at the top and then… Moore as the number two starter? The Rays have starting depth even without Hellickson with Price, Moore, Alex Cobb, Jeff Niemann, Chris Archer, and Jake Odorizzi all potentially ready for the big leagues, but there’s a big difference between having starting depth and having quality top-of-the-rotation starters. Would the improved offense with Upton be worth the trade-off, especially considering an outfield of Upton, Wil Myers, and Desmond Jennings could be the best in the big leagues in two years? Maybe, but the reality is that while the Rays would love more offense, pitching is the backbone of their ballclub and putting themselves in a position where they don’t know what they’ll get from their rotation is the last thing they want to do.
A blockbuster trade sending Justin Upton to the Rays was never likely but always an interesting discussion. After the Cody Ross signing, that’s as true as ever right now. However, it’s questionable whether such a deal would be worthwhile for both the Rays and Diamondbacks, and while it would be cool for Justin Upton to replace his brother B.J. in Tampa Bay, it would be major surprise if it actually came together.