Analysis of the Braves-Diamondbacks Trade, Part I: For the Braves

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In exchange for outfielder Justin Upton and third baseman Chris Johnson, the Braves gave up infielder/outfielder Martin Prado, righty pitcher Randall Delgado, minor league infielders Nick Ahmed, and Brandon Drury, along with righty pitcher Zeke Spruill. They held onto defensive wizard and All-Star talent Andrelton Simmons who, in earlier trade discussions, was the player the Diamondbacks wanted to front the trade.

The Braves made this deal based on winning immediately, filling holes and achieving cost certainty. They were moderate title contenders as constructed, but with the retirement of Chipper Jones, they needed another power bat in the lineup; if they were trading Prado they needed someone that could play third base. Justin Upton is the bat and Johnson is the third baseman to achieve those ends.

With the free agent signing of B.J. Upton, they acquired a defensive ace in center field and a potential do-it-all player. The question with B.J. Upton has always been motivation. In short, he’s lazy. Of course the money that the Braves agreed to pay him (5-years, $75.25 million) should be enough to receive an all-out performance on a daily basis, but this is the same player who didn’t run hard on a double play grounder in the Rays’ 2008 World Series loss. Evan Longoria confronted him in the dugout after a particularly egregious bit of lollygagging in 2010. Given that it was a public scolding and that manager Joe Maddon had repeatedly disciplined him, it’s a sound bet that it wasn’t the first time a teammate got in the face of the gifted and flighty B.J. Upton.

Combined with the money, what better way to get B.J. Upton on the same page with the club and make sure he plays hard than to acquire his brother Justin? It’s not as if this is a Ken BrettGeorge Brett case where Ken was signed by the Royals in 1980 to inspire his brother in his quest to bat .400. Nor is it a lifelong minor leaguer Mike Glavine playing first base for the Mets late in the 2003 season as a favor to Tom Glavine. Justin Upton is an MVP-caliber player (like his brother) who’s actually put up MVP-quality numbers.

Overall B.J. Upton is more talented, but Justin Upton has done it on the field. Justin was traded by the Diamondbacks because of the flimsy excuse that he’s not intense enough, but the criticism wasn’t due to jogging around the field as if he didn’t care. Justin Upton is younger than people realize at 25. He was in the big leagues at 19 and if the Diamondbacks wanted him to step forward and be a leader, it might have been a case where he’s not comfortable doing that.

Not everyone can be the center of attention and fire up the troops—not everyone wants that responsibility. With the Braves, there are enough players willing to take that initiative with Dan Uggla, Brian McCann, and Tim Hudson that Justin Upton can do his job and not worry about running into walls to keep up insincere appearances for what the Diamondbacks wanted from him. The two Uptons in the outfield with Jason Heyward will be the Braves written-in-ink outfield at least through 2015. All three are in their 20s with MVP ability. Both Uptons need to perform. Braves fans turn on players rapidly if their expectations aren’t met and sustained, so the honeymoon will be short-lived if neither brother hits.

Prado is popular, versatile and defensively solid wherever he plays. He can run and has pop. But he’s a free agent at the end of the season and unless they find a taker for Uggla (good luck), the cost-conscious Braves would have no chance of keeping Prado and their other pending free agents McCann and Hudson. Prado was the logical trade candidate if they wanted to keep Simmons.

Johnson is a limited player. He’s mediocre defensively and strikes out a lot. He’s relatively cheap ($2.88 million in 2013) and has 10-15 home run power. They needed a stopgap third baseman and took Johnson as a concession to losing Prado. Given the third base market, they could do worse. Better still, Johnson isn’t the type to be intimidated by replacing the future Hall of Famer Jones.

The initial reaction to a trade like this is generally, “Wow, look at what the Braves could be.” But what they will be is contingent on B.J. Upton hustling full-time and not just when he feels like it. If Justin Upton being there assists in that, his value will be exponentially increased from what he provides on the field.

The Braves are a win-now team and the young players they traded weren’t going to help them win on the field in the immediate future, but by trading them for Justin Upton, they did help them for 2013 and beyond.

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Which B.J. Upton Are The Braves Getting?

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Looking at his numbers without knowing how physically gifted he is, the Braves signing B.J. Upton to a 5-year, $75.25 million contract would be viewed somewhere between an overreach and lunacy. Upton’s offensive production has steadily declined from his best overall season—his first full year in the big leagues—in 2007 to what has now become a 28-year-old question mark.

Upton’s entire career has been based on talent and not results. He was the second player selected in the 2002 amateur draft; in 2004, he was in the big leagues at 19 before going back to the minors for most of 2005 and 2006; he looked to be a burgeoning star in 2007 with 24 homers, 22 stolen bases, and an .894 OPS; and throughout has been an aggravating player and person with bursts of brilliance and extended periods of inconsistency and laziness. At times, Upton doesn’t behave as if he even wants to play, let alone play hard.

In 2012, his free agent season, he hit a career high 28 homers and was clearly trying to hit more homers—not that that’s always a good thing. His OPS has been stagnant in the mid .700s since 2010, he strikes out 160 times a year, and his walks have severely diminished since posting 97 in 2008. When sufficiently motivated, he’s a great defensive center fielder, but one of his signature moments of being B.J. Upton occurred in June of 2010 when he lackadaisically pursued a line drive in the gap and Evan Longoria confronted him in the dugout nearly initiating a fistfight.

In addition to that incident, he was benched or pulled several times by manager Joe Maddon for such transgressions and chose not to run hard on a double play ball in the 2008 World Series. If he’s not going to run out grounders in the World Series, when is he going to run them out?

The petulance and sour faces are unlikely to be assuaged by his paycheck and the mere act of putting on a Braves uniform, but that’s undoubtedly what they’re expecting. When thinking about Upton and predicting the future, I’m reminded of the Braves acquisition of Kenny Lofton from the Indians after the 1996 season. The Indians dealt Lofton away because he was a pending free agent after 1997, wanted a lot of money the Indians wouldn’t be able to pay, and the club didn’t want to let him leave for nothing as they did with Albert Belle.

Lofton did not fit in with the corporate, professional, and somewhat stuck-up Braves of the 1990s and was allowed to leave after the season where he, ironically, returned to the Indians for a reasonable contract. Lofton was a far better player than Upton is and wasn’t known for a lack of hustle. He was just outspoken and got on the nerves of managers and teammates who didn’t know him well.

Will Upton be motivated to live up to the contract or will he be content now that he’s getting paid? Will being a member of the Braves inspire him to act more professionally? The Braves certainly aren’t the frat house that the Rays were. Will there be a culture shock or will Upton try to fit in? Chipper Jones is no longer there to keep people in line and Dan Uggla doesn’t put up with the nonsense of teammates jogging around—with the Marlins he confronted Hanley Ramirez repeatedly; Tim Hudson won’t shrug off Upton jogging after a shot in the gap; and Fredi Gonzalez is more outwardly temperamental than Maddon.

Perhaps what Upton needs is the starchy, conservative, “this is how we do things” Braves instead of the freewheeling, young, and new age Rays. Maybe he’ll take the new contract as a challenge and want to live up to the money he’s being paid, money that based on bottom line statistics alone, he never would have received.

Upton is one of the most talented players in baseball with a lithe body, speed, power, and great defensive skills. At 28, he’s in his prime. The Braves just need to hope that he feels like playing and fitting in, because if he doesn’t the same issues that were prevalent in Tampa will be evident in Atlanta, except they’ll be paying big money to cajole, entreat, challenge, discipline and bench him while the Rays weren’t.

Upton is a “can” player. He can hit 20+ homers. He can steal 40 bases. He can make plays of unique defensive wizardry. He can get on base and take pitches. The Braves are paying for what he can do. What he will do is the question that not even the Braves are able to answer. They’re certainly paying for it though. It could be a retrospective bargain or disaster. And no one knows within a reasonable degree of certainty as to which it’s going to be.

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