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

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The avalanche of circumstances that necessitated the trade of Justin Upton began when Kevin Towers was hired as Diamondbacks GM. After a 65-97 season in 2010 during which longtime GM Josh Byrnes and manager A.J. Hinch were fired; interim GM Jerry Dipoto made several housecleaning trades by dispatching Dan Haren, Edwin Jackson, Conor Jackson, Chris Snyder, and Chad Qualls for prospects or salary relief; and years of mediocre drafts and failed trades had left the organization in retooling mode, it’s understandable that Towers arrived and made it clear that he’d be willing to discuss his best asset—Upton—to speed the refurbishment.

The Diamondbacks weren’t in the position of the Astros or Cubs in that the whole thing had to be gutted, but they certainly weren’t a trendy pick to rebound from 65 wins to 94 and the 2011 NL West title. Any realistic assessment of their roster in 2011 would have said, “We’re not as bad as we were last year. If everything breaks right with Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson and Joe Saunders pitching well; the new bullpen performing; a huge year from Upton; unexpected contributions from Gerardo Parra and Ryan Roberts; and youngsters like Paul Goldschmidt stepping up, we can hang around the periphery of contention and maybe—maybe—be in the Wild Card hunt.”

Stunningly, the club took to the fiery style of manager Kirk Gibson and overcame their limitations with teamwork, intensity and more than a little luck. Gibson himself was only there because Towers bought into the passionate presentation he gave when the interim manager was interviewed for the fulltime job.

Sometimes the planets align perfectly and that’s what happened with the 2011 Diamondbacks. After that season, there was no need to slowly build. Instead of seeing a team that needed time to develop and required significant changes, they were suddenly legitimate contenders and looking to bolster what was already there by trading for Trevor Cahill and surrendering a large chunk of the few prospects—Ryan Cook, Jarrod Parker, Collin Cowgill—they’d accumulated in the draft. Parker and Cook were significant factors to the Athletics’ stunning run to the AL West title in 2012. Cahill was, at best, inconsistent for the Diamondbacks.

What went right for the Diamondbacks in 2011 went wrong in 2012. It would probably have been wise to realize that Roberts would fall back from his career year; that Kennedy wouldn’t be as lucky on balls in play; that the number of times they said, “I don’t believe this is happening,” was a warning sign not to believe that it was going to happen again the next year.

There’s nothing wrong with being lucky, but when that luck is translated into design and the original blueprint is ripped to shreds midstream and replaced with a new one, it’s easy to miss things and set traps for oneself. That’s what happened with Towers and Upton. When the team made that wondrous leap from last place to first place, Towers made the same mistake that Mariners’ GM Jack Zduriencik did in 2009-2010 when the Mariners overachieved to rise from 101 losses to 85 wins: he believed the hype that the team was better than it was and made decisions accordingly. These were decisions he might not have otherwise made if he’d adhered to the original plan.

What Towers was stuck with, through his own doing, was an excess of outfielders, a hole at shortstop, a sensitive player in Upton who was letting the trade talk affect his play, and the public shouting from loquacious managing general partner Ken Kendrick that Upton wasn’t living up to his contract.

Right after he was hired, Towers took offers for Upton. There was never a need to get Upton out of town because he was a malcontent, overrated or lazy. They were performing due diligence by seeing what they could get for him and if some club offered a Herschel Walker package, they’d trade him. It snowballed to the degree that they not only had to move Upton, but they had to formulate an excuse to justify it while simultaneously explaining their overpay for Cody Ross by saying that Upton wasn’t the grinding type of player they wanted their version of the Diamondbacks to exemplify. Gibson quickly ran away from the idea that he didn’t want Upton, leaving Towers and Kendrick as the likely culprits in the move and, as I said before, Towers didn’t want to trade Upton as a matter of course, he was simply seeing what was out there.

So now what?

The return for Upton is haphazard and odd. When they initially tossed his name out as negotiable, they wanted a huge package for their future. The trade they made with the Braves is a now-and-later deal. They received Martin Prado, who will fill a hole at third base, but is a free agent at the end of the season and wants a lot of money. The Diamondbacks have said they want to sign Prado and hope to get an extension done quickly, putting themselves in another precarious position similar to the one they dove headfirst into with Upton. Prado is a fine, versatile player with speed, power and defense and will help them in 2013.

They also received shortstop Nick Ahmed, third baseman Brandon Drury, righty pitcher Zeke Spruill, and righty pitcher Randall Delgado. It’s a solid return. Delgado, with his deceptive shotgun windup, has the stuff to be a big winner. You can read about the young players here on Baseball America.

There is a “but” and it’s a big one.

It’s a good trade, BUT what was the point? The problem for the Diamondbacks is that this increases the perception of ambiguity. Are they building for the future with the young players? Are they trying to win now? If Prado doesn’t sign, are they going to see where they are at mid-season and spin him off in a trade if they’re not contending or if they are, will they use this excess of young shortstops with Ahmed and Didi Gregorius to get veteran help?

A lack of definition is the hallmark of an absence of planning. The Diamondbacks may have had a plan when Towers was hired. One would assume he presented said plan to get the job. There’s no evident plan anymore. It’s an unsustainable tapdance to adapt to the on-the-fly alterations. The intention was to build slowly while being competitive. The new construct was rushed and adjusted due to situational concerns. The structure has become a box without a sufficient escape route. They’d better learn to live in it, because they have nowhere else to go. It might be good. Then again, it might not.

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The Diamondbacks Grind Justin Upton Out Of Arizona

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The Diamondbacks sought offers from Justin Upton almost immediately upon Kevin Towers taking over as GM and in all that time—two-and-a-half years—they never gave a legitimate reason as to why. Few could formulate an obvious justification to place a 25-year-old outfielder with speed, solid defensive skills and power on the trade block so publicly.

Now that Upton has been traded to the Braves, it’s being said that the Diamondbacks wanted more “grinders,” and that Upton wasn’t that type of player. This would be fine if they were exchanging an easily replaceable player who didn’t fit into the clubhouse dynamic they were trying to create, but Upton isn’t a journeyman player. He’s not even a potential All-Star if all breaks right. He’s an MVP candidate in his mid-20s, signed to a reasonable long-term contract worth $38.5 million through 2015.

The pat excuses—lack of money; clubhouse malcontent; rebuilding—didn’t fit with the desperation to trade Upton, so it appeared as if they were trading him just for the sake of it. This all goes back to the hiring of Towers and the 2011 division title. I doubt that when Towers was hired he expected a few bullpen moves and the pieces that were already in place would result in a stunning NL West title. There was no rebuilding project to undertake because they won immediately with the remnants of what former GMs Josh Byrnes and his interim replacement Jerry Dipoto had left for Towers and manager Kirk Gibson to work with.

That division title might have hypnotized the Diamondbacks into thinking they were better than they actually were; into believing that the edited, simplistic version of Towers’s resume and the four playoff appearances and one pennant he won as GM of the Padres were accurate as a final determinative factor of his quality of work. In reality, the NL West was a weak division that the Padres won in back to back seasons in 2005 and 2006 because they were the best of a rotten bunch. Somehow, Towers garnered a reputation that he never truly earned. He’s a competent executive to be sure, but as for someone whose every word should be adhered to because he has a “track record of success,” it’s highly presumptuous. Towers’s executive accomplishments may be true, but they’re not 100% accurate.

All the speculation that there might have been off-field issues with Upton (because there was no other possible explanation for this obsession to trade him) were rendered moot when it was strategically leaked that he wasn’t intense enough to suit Towers and Gibson. As a response to search for reasons to the publicly inexplicable solicitation of offers for Upton, the Diamondbacks found one that can’t be quantified, therefore not disputed as anything other than an opinion.

Because Gibson was a run through the wall, football-mentality type doesn’t mean that’s what every player has to be in order to be successful. I’m not of the mind that the manager is a faceless, nameless functionary installed to implement front office edicts, but I’m also not of the mind to bend over backwards to adjust the roster to fit what the manager wants to do, especially when it involves trading a player who has the ability to win the MVP. The recent death of Earl Weaver and the accompanying tributes and obituaries discussed his love for the 3-run homer, defense and pitching, but Weaver was also able to adapt when he didn’t have the personnel to play that way. Gibson is not Weaver and sounds as if he’s distancing himself from the implication that he wanted tougher players than Upton.

Here’s the impression I get from the way this entire mess played itself out: Towers arrived as Diamondbacks GM, looked at the prospective 2011 roster and felt there were too many holes to fill through making small trades and affordable free agent signings. He sent feelers out regarding Upton hoping for a massive haul to rebuild the team and contend in perhaps 2012-2013. No massive offer came and they held onto Upton. Things went perfectly in 2011, they won the division with Upton finishing fourth in the MVP voting and they were suddenly viable contenders for the immediate future. After trading for Trevor Cahill and making a bizarre signing in Jason Kubel, they were going for it all in 2012. But they didn’t win it all. The pitching had injuries and the rotation and bullpen weren’t as good in 2012 as they were in 2011. They wound up at .500.

Who was to blame? Judging by what they just did it was Upton and his lack of fire. 2012 and the ongoing saga notwithstanding, the damage was done in late 2010 when Towers tossed Upton out there as a negotiable entity. Upton seemed perplexed and hurt by the trade talk but was great in 2011. In 2012, he played through injuries and his numbers suffered. This didn’t stop Diamondbacks’ Managing General Partner Ken Kendrick from calling out Upton and Stephen Drew for substandard play. Never mind that it’s been revealed that Upton had an injured thumb or that Drew was returning from a ghastly ankle injury, they weren’t playing up to Kendrick’s standards and he tore into them.

The Diamondbacks still had Upton on the table at mid-season 2012 and made their intentions clear when they signed Cody Ross for three-years and a whopping $26 million. There was nowhere for Upton to play. Towers traded for Heath Bell, whose main skill at grinding is grinding on the nerves of teammates, coaches, managers and front office people.

Clamoring for a shortstop, Towers traded his own former top draft pick Trevor Bauer to the Indians in a three-team trade that brought them Didi Gregorius from the Reds. Towers immediately compared to Gregorius to Derek Jeter. Then he agreed upon a trade of Upton to the Mariners knowing that the Mariners were one of the teams on Upton’s no-trade list and having been told beforehand that Upton was not going to okay the move under any circumstances. Like an undaunted explorer, Towers was formulating new ways to venture to the point of no return.

In the trade with the Braves, he sent Upton and Chris Johnson to Atlanta and acquired another shortstop Nick Ahmed along with Martin Prado, Randall Delgado and Zeke Spruill.

He’s got the young Jeter in Gregorius, I’m waiting for him to compare Ahmed to Nomar Garciaparra to have his very own late-1990s, inter-organizational war as to who’s better, Nomar or Derek.

The Diamondbacks finished off their Upton gaffe and obviously didn’t learn the error of their ways when, with Prado, they announced that they planned to sign him to a long-term contract to prevent his free agency after 2013. How about talking to his agent first and seeing what he wants before boxing oneself and making Prado’s contract extension a necessity rather than a desire?

Then it became public that they were going to try and trade for Rick Porcello of the Tigers. The Diamondbacks are a club that operates under the pretext of going beyond full disclosure to overexposure without understanding what kind of damage they’re doing to their plans (if they have any).

There’s been no acknowledgement of what got them in this situation in the first place: The Upton rumors that started when Towers first took the job. If there’s no accepting and admitting of the problem, then the problem can’t be solved. Towers wanted a shortstop in exchange for Upton and was trying to get Jurickson Profar from the Rangers. When the Rangers said no, he turned his attention to minor leaguers like the ones listed above. His current big league shortstops are Cliff Pennington, Willie Bloomquist and John McDonald—none of whom are any good.

Are they rebuilding? Are they trying to win now? Is Towers undoing what was there when he arrived and trying to tailor a club to fit his manager even though the manager is the first one to go when things come undone?

The Diamondbacks put themselves in this position and rather than climb out of the hole they’ve dug, they’re continuing to dig hoping that digging deeper yields an escape route. Logic dictates that it won’t and they’ll keep making things worse until it won’t matter what kind of team they want because the players they have aren’t good enough.

Upton was good enough. He’ll be showing that with the Braves in 2013 and beyond as the Diamondbacks grind themselves into the ground.

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Why Are the Diamondbacks So Desperate to Deal Upton?

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You can counter the title question with, “They’re not desperate; they’re just listening and trying to maximize an asset,” or some other line of sludge. But they sure sound desperate to deal him to me.

Since he took the job as Diamondbacks’ GM after the 2010 season, Kevin Towers has tossed Justin Upton’s name around as a negotiable commodity. That the Diamondbacks are so willing to trade a soon-to-be-25-year-old who has the talent to win an MVP is truly baffling. He’s also signed through 2015 with $38.5 million owed to him from 2013 onward.

Why?

Team managing general partner Ken Kendrick was publicly unhappy with both Upton and Stephen Drew earlier this season so this might not be coming from Towers, but he’s the front man and he’s the one making Upton available, so he’s the one to look at when asking the obvious question: Why?

The shift from willing to maybe to increasingly definite is curious. So curious that it would give me pause.

Before making a substantial bid for him and offer what Towers is going to want—figure on starting pitching, either a blue chip shortstop or third baseman, and possibly an outfield bat—I’d want to know why they’re moving him and I’d want a real answer. Then I’d ask around behind the scenes if there’s anything the Diamondbacks are hiding such as a worrisome physical problem or off-field issues.

In the spring, before they signed him to a team-friendly contract extension, the Pirates had put it out there that they’d listen to offers for Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen is one of perhaps 3-4 players in baseball for whom I’d surrender upwards of 5 players to get. In fact, if I was starting an organization, I’d select him over Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and Giancarlo Stanton. He’s a foundational player that an organization builds around. The Pirates signed him, he’s staying in Pittsburgh and he’s blossomed into an MVP candidate.

I don’t consider Upton to be that type of player. He’s just below that group on the next tier. With the Diamondbacks acting as if they have to get rid of him, I can’t help but wonder what’s going on under the surface. I’d ask the question of Towers during negotiations and if I didn’t like the answers, I’d regretfully decline to make any deal and move along.

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Who Won’t Be Traded At The Deadline?

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Everyone’s coming up with their lists of players who are going to be available or traded at the upcoming MLB trading deadline. I’ve been doing it too and will continue up to the big day, but there are also names floating around that come from anonymous (possibly nonexistent) sources; have reasons to possibly be on the block but actually aren’t; or are pulled out of the air by rumormongers because they can’t think of anything else to write or talk about.

Here are some of the players that are implied to be available, but aren’t and won’t be traded.

Josh Willingham, Twins

The Twins are ready to deal but they’re not going to get rid of every big league player on the roster. They just signed Willingham this past winter, he’s paid reasonably and they wouldn’t get much for him if they did decide to trade him. The days of teams taking on big contracts and giving up significant prospects are over and the Twins aren’t going to pay any of Willingham’s salary.

He’s 33 and is signed through 2014 at $7 million per year. He’s either more valuable for the Twins to keep or to look to trade as the contract winds down.

The Twins aren’t going to have the stomach to rebuild the team completely in an expansion-franchise sense. Willingham can help them in the next two seasons and he’s a good influence on the younger players.

Justin Upton, Diamondbacks

I understand the thinking that the Diamondbacks might listen. Managing general partner Ken Kendrick called Upton out for his mediocre play and GM Kevin Towers listened to offers on Upton shortly after taking over. There’s a logic to doing something drastic when a team with high expectations is struggling, but Upton is only 24 (25 in August); is signed at a reasonable rate ($38.5 million from 2013-2015); and the Diamondbacks still have a good shot at the playoffs despite their poor start.

Upton has a no-trade clause to four teams: the Tigers, A’s, Indians and Royals.

Other teams will call and ask; as he should, Towers might listen to what the offers are; but Upton’s not getting moved.

Alex Gordon, Royals

He’s finally found a defensive home in left field; he’s signed through 2015; is hitting better after a bad luck-infused start; and the Royals aren’t doing the “we’re rebuilding” thing and dumping any and all veterans.

The Royals have something positive building in spite of their stimulus response critics. Gordon is a part of that.

Felix Hernandez, Mariners

They’re not trading him. Forget it.

It’s partially because the Mariners have a load of pitching on the roster and on the way up and need a veteran leader to front the rotation when they’re ready to move from terrible to mediocre to (someday) pretty good, but if they’re letting Ichiro Suzuki go after this season, they don’t want to alienate the fanbase entirely by dumping two fan favorites within months of one another.

Tim Lincecum, Giants

There’s a logic to the idea. He’s been bad this season, somewhat unlucky and his velocity is down. Lincecum is a free agent after the 2013 season and has shown no inclination to sign a long-term deal for one penny less than market value.

One thing that flashed through my head was Cole Hamels and one of the Phillies’ minor league arms (Phillippe Aumont, Trevor May) for Lincecum. The Giants would get an ace (pitching like an ace) for the rest of the season and a young pitcher; the Phillies would have Lincecum for this year and next.

But the Giants aren’t going to trade their most popular and marketable player regardless of how poor he’s going.

David Wright, Mets

Wright is having an MVP-quality season and is back to the player he was until the Mets moved into Citi Field and turned Wright into a nervous wreck who altered his swing and approach to account for the stadium’s dimensions. The Mets are hovering around contention and aren’t drawing well. Trading Wright would throw the white flag up on the season. That’s not going to happen.

He’s signed for 2013 at $16 million and the Mets are going to give him an extension comparable to Ryan Zimmerman’s with the Nationals. He’s going nowhere.

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Ken Kendrick Channels His Inner Steinbrenner

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Part of being the best and highest paid player on a team is taking the brunt when the team isn’t playing well. It’s with that in mind that Justin Upton can’t complain when Diamondbacks’ managing general partner Ken Kendrick calls him out on his slow start—Arizona Republic Story.

Upton has MVP potential and at 24, he should be putting up better numbers than a .243/.340/.365 slash line with 5 homers. It’s June. The Diamondbacks had high hopes for 2012 after a stunning 2011 NL West title and near miss of going to the NLCS. They traded for Trevor Cahill and signed Jason Kubel. These moves were made for a World Series run.

Of course it was absurd to expect Ryan Roberts to repeat his 2011 breakout/career season; Paul Goldschmidt isn’t fully established at first base; and Chris Young was injured after a hot start. Although he’s pitched better of late, if anyone needs to be called out for performance, it’s closer J.J. Putz.

But Upton is the main main in Arizona, so he has to take the hits for his teammates. That’s how it works. Publicly Upton put up a brave front in response to the Kendrick comments. Whether or not he’s upset or insulted by them privately is irrelevant. There’s a simple solution: start hitting.

As for the Kendrick negativity heaped on Stephen Drew, it’s illogical to think that Drew doesn’t want to play even though that same criticism was often levied against his brother J.D. Drew. Is it possible that Stephen Drew is thinking about the future and looking to other venues when he becomes a free agent? Yes. Is it the family history and that he’s represented by Scott Boras that adds to the perception? Yes. But he’s got a contract option with the Diamondbacks for 2013 at $10 million. If he’s looking forward to free agency or wants a contract extension, wouldn’t it make more sense that he get out and play well rather than sit on the sidelines and wait for the Diamondbacks to decline his option after this season, which they’re obviously going to do? No one’s paying him big money after this year. In fact, as a free agent he’ll get a Major League contract, but it will be incentive-laden and short-term.

Kendrick’s frustration is not an excuse for these comments. It’s irresponsible and foolish for any front office person to question a player’s commitment when he’s returning from injury. There’s a difference between being injured and being a malingerer and Drew’s ankle was seriously injured. It’s hard to believe he’s sitting out purposefully.

Kendrick and many observers were expecting more than 27-30 and 9 games out of first place from these Diamondbacks; but it may be that the team had very high hopes and isn’t good enough to achieve them. If that’s the case, castigating the players isn’t going to help Kendrick or anyone in the organization. In fact, it’s probably going to make things worse.

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