First Pitch: The Question Marks Surrounding Justin Upton

It was a week ago today that I wrote about why I wouldn’t trade for Justin Upton. The main reason was that the price in prospects would be too high, although other reasons included the limited resources for small market teams (Upton would cost an average of $12 M a year).

Today we heard that the Pittsburgh Pirates were emerging as serious bidders for Upton. In those same rumors, we heard that they weren’t willing to deal Gerrit Cole or Jameson Taillon, but that they were willing to deal Starling Marte.

That changes a lot in the Upton discussion. If the Pirates could manage to get Upton, and Marte was the only big piece they had to give up, then it’s almost a no brainer. I don’t see that happening, unless Arizona agreed with Brad Lincoln’s trade value and took him as the second part of the deal.

Because a trade centered around Marte as the only top piece would be such a good deal, it raises questions. If the Pirates could get Justin Upton, considered one of the best young players in the game, and they didn’t have to give up Cole or Taillon, it would be an amazing deal, to the point where it would be suspicious. Why would Arizona make such a deal, especially when they’re looking for major league help, and have Upton under control for three and a half years?

There have been a lot of questions surrounding Upton. First, there’s his health. He’s had a shoulder injury this year, which could explain his down numbers following a year where he was an MVP candidate. There have been some grumblings that the shoulder is a long term thing.

Then there have been questions surrounding his work ethic and consistency. Arizona owner Ken Kendrick made public comments last month about how Upton needs to be more consistent. There have also been mixed reports about his work ethic and character, although those are more grumblings and speculation.

One alarming trend is Upton’s home/road splits. In his career, he has a .924 OPS at home, and a .742 OPS on the road. Even during his MVP season last year he had a 1.033 OPS at home, and a .767 OPS on the road. Players usually play better at home than on the road, but the numbers Upton puts up on the road are alarming. Andrew McCutchen, as a counter example, has a career .901 OPS at home, and an .825 OPS on the road. If you played the game where you take a guy’s road numbers and assume that’s what he’ll hit when he’s traded, that .825 OPS isn’t bad. Upton’s .742 OPS is bad.

My take on Upton’s numbers are to defer to his talent. There’s either two ways to look at the situation. One, Upton is too talented to believe that he’s just a product of Chase Field. The other view would be that Upton is a product of Chase Field, and that his talent isn’t good enough to put up good numbers elsewhere. If that’s true, then a lot of people are wrong about his skills.

I also don’t put too much stock in to the injury concerns, or the makeup concerns. A lot of those things can be blown out of proportion. We heard some of those things coming out of New York about A.J. Burnett, and he’s been nothing but the ideal veteran teammate. There are concerns with Upton’s slump this year, but going back to his talent, if you think he’s got the skills to be considered one of the best young players in the game, that’s not a long term concern.

Here’s my concern: why is Arizona willing to deal him? You can dismiss the injury from being a long term issue. You can ignore the numbers this year, and the home/road splits. You don’t have to believe the speculation about his attitude and work ethic. But even if you dismiss all of these question marks, you’re left with the biggest question of all. Why would Arizona deal a guy considered one of the best young players in the game, who is under control for three and a half years, all while they’re trying to win at the major league level?

You can dismiss all the concerns about Upton, but that question raises a lot of red flags. Teams don’t just deal top young players when they’re trying to win. And if Marte was the only top prospect in the deal, that would raise more red flags.

All of these red flags are alarming for the Pirates. With Upton being due $12 M a year on average, the Pirates can’t afford to make a mistake. They’re not the Yankees or Red Sox. If Upton becomes a bust, they’re stuck with him and his contract. There’s no going and getting a replacement. There’s no adding other pieces to make up for his lost production. Think of the impact Jason Kendall’s contract had on this franchise. The same would happen if Upton came to the Pirates and bombed. There are a lot of question marks surrounding Upton, and answering all of them just raises a bigger question of why Arizona would deal him. Because of the questions, it’s hard to view this as a slam dunk deal that the Pirates absolutely have to make.

Links and Notes

**The Pirates lost to the Brewers 4-1.

**Pirates Notebook: Sloppy Play Leads to Loss; Tabata Struggling in Triple-A.

**Prospect Watch: Altoona is No Hit, Barnes Homers, Good Pitching From Irwin, Sadler.

**Presley Looking Ready to Return in Indians Win.

**Pirates Emerging as Serious Bidders for Justin Upton.

**Pirates Have Expressed Interest in Jon Lester and Jason Vargas.

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About Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He is a credentialed media member with every team in the Pirates’ system, including the Pirates themselves. He’s a regular guest on Extra Innings on 104.7, and makes regular appearances on ESPN 970, 93.7 The Fan, and TribLIVE Radio in Pittsburgh, as well as ESPN 1430 in Altoona and ESPN 1450 in State College.
  • IC Bob

    Tim I am curious how many players in the minors do we have that are talented that will likely need to be on the 40 man roster next year that are not at this time? If we have a logjam then I am all for getting a star player and trading players that we may not be able to keep anyways. If we are still not having to risk any talent (like the last few years) then I would question the logic of a blockbuster for Upton.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      Funny you should ask that. I’m working on an article on that very topic. It should be up this afternoon.

  • http://twitter.com/Sammy_Henz Sam Henzler

    Rosenthal said today that Marte could be a bust. He could be another Tabata, and that’s it. Trade him for Upton because Upton is proven as a star, and Marte could be, but apparently won’t be, so I say trade him now, to be safe. If I were Neal, this would be the ideal Upton trade:
    Pirates get: Justin Upton
    D-Backs get: Starling Marte, Rudy Owens or Jeff Locke, Robbie Grossman, Kyle McPherson, and Alex Dickerson

  • Dave Parker’s Unfiltered Camel

    Why would Arizona trade Upton for fewer prospects than his value dictates?
    1. Maybe the owner is too involved and is driving the whole thing. When is it ever good to have an owner speak out publicly in a negative way about one of his players? I doubt it helps the player perform better. It certainly doesn’t help his trade value.

    2. Upton’s performance this year along with his salary raises questions with other teams, lowering the value they place on Upton. Other teams may be unwilling to give up their top talent, because of the potential risk thus reducing AZ’s options to trade Upton.

    3. Teams across MLB are not willing to part ways with their top prospects like we’ve seen in the past. Again this reduces AZ’s options.

    4. AZ has an unhappy player in the clubhouse, who has a personality conflict with the owner. They’re paying him a lot of money over the next few years and they’re stuck with him. They have a replacement option. They have an opportunity to get a very good outfield prospect for him along with a pitcher who could be a solid starter/very good reliever. They may not get as much in player return as they would like, but they do get something decent in return along with salary relief and a happier clubhouse.

  • Lee Young

    Every player that you trade for is a risk. It’s not like Marte, Presley or Tabata are sure things going forward.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_46YTB5OO4O7UM2OVB44UZSTXNA Nate

    I’m of the line of thinking that Upton’s attitude (if it is even an issue) would definitely improve here. He would be coming to a city/team that would want him and he’d be playing alongside of Cutch, I think he’d pick Upton up.

  • http://twitter.com/StevefromYukuDU Yukudukes

    I just think your 5 win valuation is higher than Upton deserves which also accounts for their demands seemingly reduced. When a guy averages 3.4 wins over his 5 year career (4.1 if you only count the last 4 and project this season at 2.2 wins), you have to put more of your value on what they’ve actually done and not projection. If the Pirates give up 5 wins per year worth of value for Upton, I’d be very disappointed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kirk.vandergrift Kirk Lee

    3.5 years at $12 MM wouldn’t be as bad as Kendall. But yeah, the deal carries considerable risk. Also considerable reward. While I can imagine just how much we’d all kick ourselves if we traded Marte and Lincoln and they both flourished while Upton bombed at $12MM/year, I can also imagine McCutchen and Upton shredding up the majors together on a daily basis and bringing us a world series ring at some point in the next 3 years. Which is pretty intense, since I have had trouble even imagining the Pirates as a playoff team until extremely recently.

  • john.alcorn

    If you don’t include projection than any prospects we give up are worth zero wins. Upton was 21,22 years old for his early years, you have to project him since he is not yet near his prime. There is a very good chance that he could be worth much more than 5 wins a year as soon as next season.
    I think he will go cheaper than expecte dbecause of the natural human tendency to looak at his brother’s failure to live up to his tools and apply it to Justin. Its hard to divorce the head/commitment issues between the brothers.

  • st1300b

    I could be way off on this, especially because I really like Marte – but it could be the huge emergence of a player like Greg Polanco in WV that the team feels stronger about dealing a Marte. Especially when you consider Bell and the 1A drafted OF this year… A lot of talented OF’s lower in the minors make Marte (or any 1 outfielder) less important to the long term plans.