Would a Justin Upton Deal Be Worth the Cost for the Rays and Diamondbacks?


It started off sounding ridiculous. And now suddenly it could really happen. Ken Rosenthal has reported the Rays may now be the front-runner in the trade talks for the Diamondbacks’ Justin Upton, possessing the pitching and prospects needed to get the deal done. But is a deal worth the steep price the Rays will have to pay in order to get Upton to replace his brother B.J. Upton in a Rays uniform?

The Texas Rangers could have blown away the field in the pursuit of Upton by offering a package headlined by either starting shortstop Elvis Andrus or another shortstop who is arguably the top prospect baseball, Jurickson Profar. But the Rangers know what they have in those two players and have no qualms about keeping them both- Profar has already seen time at second base in the minors and majors- and both players are apparently off-limits in trades. That leaves the Rays, who can offer the Diamondbacks topflight pitching for Upton, and, as Rosenthal points out, a top shortstop prospect of their own in Hak-Ju Lee. The package the Rays would have to offer for Upton could be a little more or less than that, but that’s where a discussion will start. Do the Rays really want Upton that badly?

When teams look to trade for Justin Upton, they have to keep in mind that they don’t know exactly where they’re going to get. Upton, who turned 25 in August, has alternated between outstanding and simply solid seasons the past four years. In 2011, he finished fourth in the MVP voting after posting a .289/.369/.529 line (141 OPS+) with 39 doubles, 5 triples, 31 homers, 88 RBI, and 21 of 30 stolen bases in 159 games and 674 plate appearances. In 2011, however, he slipped to .280/.355/.430 (107 OPS+) with 24 doubles, 17 homers, 67 RBI, and 18 of 26 stolen bases in 150 games and 628 PA’s. Upton, like his brother B.J., has superstar ability, and unlike B.J., he has put together seasons that make you think “wow, he has really put it all together now” not once, but twice, in 2009 and 2011. But Upton’s 2012 decline was particularly concerning. Among the 21 MLB players who managed an OPS+ of 140 or higher in 2011, not a single player experienced as much of a drop in OPS+ as Upton did while staying healthy the entire season or close to it. Nevertheless, the Rays would love to get Upton in their lineup and see what he can do. His ability to hit for average and power, steal some bases, and play solid defense in right field would allow them to seamlessly replace B.J. and if Justin can return to his 2011 levels, suddenly the Rays’ outfield and maybe even their entire offense could be significantly improved next season. But in a potential trade, the Rays are trading for potential while keeping in mind that there’s a chance that Upton is not all that much more than an average player.

The other factor with Upton is his contract- he 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. The Rays would have trouble paying that contract and would likely need some money from the D-Backs in a possible trade in order to acquire him.

Tampa Bay Rays trade RHP James Shields to the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for RF Justin Upton and 6 million dollars cash.

The Rays would be thrilled if a possible trade for Upton would be this simple. It won’t be. The Diamondbacks would love to get a topflight pitcher like Shields in a return for Upton, but that alone does not get the deal done. No matter how much GM Kevin Towers and the Diamondbacks want to trade Upton, they recognize that Upton is a big part of their lineup and replacing him with speedy rookie Adam Eaton is no sure proposition. Even in the best-case scenario, Eaton has much less power than Upton and cannot deliver monster seasons like Upton has already done twice. An Upton for Shields trade would certainly improve the Diamondbacks rotation and a rotation of Shields, Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill, Wade Miley, and Tyler Skaggs, plus Daniel Hudson when he returns from Tommy John Surgery, would be quite formidable (and extremely changeup-dependent- everyone but Skaggs used a changeup as their primary secondary pitch in 2012). But factoring in Upton’s potential, this trade could be an enormous win for the Rays if Upton puts it all together, and if Upton plays at a high level over the length of the contract with the Rays, the Diamondbacks will regret trading Upton forever. The Diamondbacks run that risk no matter who they trade Upton for, but they still want more in return from him so they have a better chance of being an improved team without Upton even taking that possibility into account.

Tampa Bay Rays trade RHP Jeremy Hellickson and SS Hak-Ju Lee to the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for OF Justin Upton and 6 million dollars.

This trade looks like a pretty good match- the Diamondbacks receive a nice pitcher in Hellickson who has pitched well the last who seasons and made significant strides with his curveball in 2012 to give him a chance to be even better moving forward, and also fill a team need at shortstop with the slick-fielding Lee. There is risk on both sides in this trade, that Lee never hits enough to be a starting shortstop and that Upton plays more like he did in 2012 than he did in 2011 moving forward, but nevertheless the D-Backs would improve their rotation and at shortstop to compensate for the loss of Upton while having both Hellickson and Lee under team control for the next several years. However, this trade is not happening with money being the major factor. The earlier trade worked because the Rays were trading Shields, who is making 10.25 million dollars in 2012, for Upton, who is making 9.75 million, and the money in the trade would mean that the Rays would be saving money even while plugging a major hole in their outfield and their lineup with Upton. In this trade, the Rays would be in trouble. Hellickson and Lee are both pre-arbitration eligible players, with Hellickson making near the MLB minimum in 2013 and Lee scheduled to make the same once he breaks into the big leagues, and suddenly they would be adding 8 million dollars (factoring in the money the D-Backs send in the trade) to their payroll in 2012 and over 12 million dollars in 2013 and 2014. This trade would necessitate Shields being traded as well, either in a separate trade or a crazy 3-team deal. The Rays are not going to carry out a trade like this that forces them to not only trade Hellickson but also Shields. They have starting depth, but trading two of their top three starters would be taking it too far.

Tampa Bay Rays trade RHP James Shields and SS Hak-Ju Lee to the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for RF Justin Upton and 6 million dollars.

Now the money issue disappears and the Diamondbacks would do this trade as they receive a frontline starter and a shortstop that be contributing to their big league team at some point in 2013 in exchange for Upton. But now the Rays might back out, since they would be losing their most dependable starter and their shortstop of the future and unless Upton finally finds sustained success, this trade doesn’t look so good for them. Even though shortstop is a position of need for the Rays, they could absorb the blow better than most teams because of the presence of Ben Zobrist, which would allow them to be fine moving forward with Zobrist at shortstop and someone like Tim Beckham or Derek Dietrich at second base. But they still would like a shortstop back in this trade to even it out more.

Tampa Bay Rays trade RHP James Shields and SS Hak-Ju Lee to the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for RF Justin Upton, SS Chris Owings, and 6 million dollars.

If you divide this trade into a Shields for Upton swap and a Lee for Owings swap, the crazy thing would be that Lee and Owings both played at Double-A in 2012. How would that make any sense for Arizona? The answer is that Lee has Gold Glove potential defensively and shows the ability to hit for a decent average, get on base at solid clip, and steal quite a few bases while Owings is much more rough around the edges in his game. He has a chance to be an above-average if not plus defender at shortstop but remains erratic, and offensively he has more upside than Lee, hitting for much more power to go along with some speed, but his major flaw is a complete lack of patience that puts his entire offensive game into question. Owings will almost assuredly take longer to make the big leagues than Lee and has much more risk- Lee’s absolute floor is a defense-first utility player while Owings could very well completely flame out. Now we’re talking a package that makes some sense, but while we’re talking about a shortstop swap, the Rays would also like recoup a little pitching value in this trade. Your first thought has to be to Trevor Bauer, but while the Diamondbacks are considering trading their top pitching prospect Bauer because of concerns with his work ethic and drop in fastball velocity, a trade of Shields and Lee for Upton and Bauer, let alone Upton, Bauer, and Owings, is not something the Diamondbacks would be willing to do. The second pitcher the Rays would ask about would be Tyler Skaggs, but he’s in line for a rotation spot for the D-Backs in 2013 and has considerable upside, also putting his value too high to be the final piece in this trade. The pitcher that makes most sense is lefty Patrick Corbin.

Tampa Bay Rays trade RHP James Shields and SS Hak-Ju Lee to the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for RF Justin Upton, SS Chris Owings, LHP Patrick Corbin, and 4.5 million dollars.

Corbin, 23, appears to be the odd man out in the D-Backs’ rotation plans if they acquire a starting pitcher like Shields, and with no need for him in their strong bullpen, Arizona would no qualms putting him into this deal to make it happen. Corbin struggled to a 4.54 ERA in 107 innings for the D-Backs in 2012, but he shows flashes with a sinker, curveball, and a changeup, albeit while struggling with command, and he could be a pitcher that the Rays try out of the bullpen in a Wade Davis-esque role with the possibility of returning him to the rotation later on.

At the end of the day, the Rays are trading a dependable number two starter in Shields and a outstanding defensive shortstop with the ability to break into the big leagues later this season in Lee in exchange for Upton, who would fill a gaping hole in the Rays’ lineup and outfield with superstar potential but also the risk of being little better than average, a shortstop prospect in Owings with upside although considerable risk that would make the Rays more comfortable trading Lee, and a pitcher apparently out the Diamondbacks’ plans in Corbin that would allow the Rays to recover some pitching depth. The Diamondbacks get considerable improvements at starting pitcher and shortstop while trading away a talented but enigmatic player who has driven them completely insane in Upton along with two secondary pieces to even out the deal. The Diamondbacks seem unlikely to get the package of their dreams for Upton, but they get two players that could play crucial role for them over the next few seasons as they battle for NL West supremacy. The Rays, meanwhile, trade two players they would rather not trade but make an enormous upside play for Upton and to a lesser extent for Owings and Corbin.

Will the Diamondbacks deal Justin Upton now or hold onto him until the 2013 trade deadline hoping he can reestablish his value and command an even bigger return? Over the next few days and weeks, we will find out the answer to that question. If Arizona does deal Upton to the Rays in a trade like this, it could become one of the most-talked about trades in baseball for a very long time.