Could the Rays Be Replacing One Upton With Another?


There does not appear to be any doubt that B.J. Upton will be playing his home games outside Tampa Bay next season. But could the Rays be seamlessly replacing him with his brother Justin Upton? At least one well-known baseball writer seems to think so.

In a column for ESPN Insider, Fangraphs’ Dave Cameron talks about American League moves that “need to happen” during the 2012 offseason, and #1 on his list is that this trade:

Tampa Bay Rays trade LHP David Price and INF Tim Beckham to the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for RF Justin Upton and RHP Trevor Bauer.

There are several problems with this trade. The first, as Cork Gaines pointed out over at Rays Index, is the money factor of this deal. David Price is the Rays’ ace and they have absolutely no reason to trade him unless they can receive a package of super-talented and relatively cheap young players under team control for several years with the ability to make the Rays a better team even as they move forward without their ace. Justin Upton is pretty young, turning 25 in August, but not cheap as he’s owed 9.75 million dollars in 2013 and the 14.25 million dollars in 2014 and 2015. The Upton for Price swap would not save the Rays very much money if any over what Price will make over the next three years in salary arbitration. The second issue Gaines has with the deal is more overarching- the Rays have never traded a player because they could not afford him, instead allowing such players (e.g. Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton) to leave as free agents. The players they do trade are ones that either are not worth what the Rays are paying them (e.g. Scott Kazmir), are worth far less than an offer the Rays receive for them (e.g. Matt Garza– both the way they traded for him using Delmon Young and the way they traded him away), or that the Rays have viable replacements who are as good or better already in their system (e.g. Edwin Jackson with Jeff Niemann ready and Garza with Jeremy Hellickson ready). At least since the name change from Devil Rays to Rays, Gaines is right. But even taking money out of the equation, there is a crucial flaw in this proposed trade.

David Price’s value is at an all-time high after a Cy Young-caliber season. If the Rays are ever going to trade him, now is the time for them to get peak value in the trade- although the value they receive will have to be more in their minds than what Price will give them during his last three years under team control, and that is a tough standard that may make a deal at this time an impossibility. But what about the other three players in this trade? Why are they all being traded at diminished values?

It used to be a given that Justin Upton was better than his brother B.J. would ever be. That is still probably true, but it’s not as clear-cut anymore as B.J. actually beat out Justin in terms of OPS+, home runs, doubles, and stolen bases in 2012, managing a 109 OPS+, 28 home runs, 29 doubles, and 31 of 36 stolen bases compared to a 107 OPS+, 17 home runs, 24 doubles, and 18 of 26 stolen bases. Other than in OPS+, B.J. beat his younger brother soundly in the other three categories. B.J. versus Justin isn’t the question at hand now- the Rays don’t reasonably expect to let B.J. leave as a free agent and nevertheless upgrade their offense. But Justin was mediocre in 2012 playing at one of the best hitter’s ballparks in baseball, managing just a .280/.355/.430 line with 24 doubles, 17 homers, 67 RBI, 18 of 26 stolen bases, and 121 strikeouts against 63 walks in 150 games and 628 plate appearances. He ranked 5th on his own team minimum 550 plate appearances in OPS+. For a player who is supposed to be a young superstar, that is pretty bad. Upton has alternated between big years and sub-par years the past four seasons (he had a 141 OPS+ and 31 home runs in 2011), but past results are not indicative of future performance and you can’t assume that’s going to happen again in 2013. Upton certainly has the talent to be one of the best players in baseball, but at least in 2012 that did not materialize in the least. If you’re trading Upton for Price, he better be coming off a huge season because Price is one of the best pitchers in baseball and turned just 27 years old in August. That is not the case at all right now.

Trevor Bauer is actually the type of player the Rays would like to acquire in a Price trade, being a 21 year old right-hander with ace upside although control and command issues to work out before he gets there. But why would the Diamondbacks trade the 3rd overall pick in the 2011 draft after he struggled in just 4 big league starts in 2012? Obviously there’s work still to be done, but to give up on him so quickly? If you could acquire David Price, you obviously trade Bauer, but the timing would be pretty bizarre.

And then there’s Beckham, whose stock has obviously fallen off a cliff since he was the number one overall pick back in 2008, but his stock is especially low after he missed time because of a drug of abuse suspension in 2012, managed just a .256/.325/.361 line when he did play, and is currently being converted from shortstop to second base in the Arizona Fall League, although a good portion of the reasoning for that has to do with Hak-Ju Lee heading to Triple-A as opposed to Beckham’s deficiencies at the position. Beckham would obviously be a thrown-in for this trade, but who would possibly want to acquire him now and why would the Rays trade him at possibly his lowest value ever?

What would also be crazy about this trade is that it would be two former number one overall picks for another former No. 1 and a number three overall pick. That would more of a cool aside than anything else, but it wouldn’t exactly inspire confidence in the Rays’ fan base to see them trade away the two highest picks they’re going to have for a very long time as their contending ways has them drafting in the latter part of the first round.

Bottom line on this proposed trade by Cameron, David Price is probably not being traded, Justin Upton is not coming to Tampa Bay and the D-Backs would be smart to hold onto him for another year so he can restore his value, it would be strange for Arizona to give up on Bauer so quickly even in a potential blockbuster deal, and Tim Beckham may not have a future with the Rays but now is not the time to trade him. What makes sense about this trade? A David Price trade would be an absolute blockbuster- but it will be awfully hard to find a package that is impressive enough to the Rays that they would trade their ace, and Cameron’s suggestion is not that.