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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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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2012 National League East Predicted Standings

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Wins Losses GB
1. Atlanta Braves 93 69
2. Philadelphia Phillies* 89 73 4
3. Washington Nationals* 88 74 5
4. Miami Marlins 83 79 10
5. New York Mets 69 93 24

*Denotes predicted Wild Card winner.

Atlanta Braves

There’s a misplaced belief that the team that made the most drastic and biggest moves in the off-season is automatically the “best” team.

Because the Braves did nothing to add to the roster that collapsed out of a playoff spot, they’re virtually ignored as a legit contender.

There was addition by subtraction by getting rid of Derek Lowe; they made significant improvements in-season by acquiring Michael Bourn. They’re going to be helped by the gained experience of young players Freddie Freeman, Jonny Venters, Craig Kimbrel and Mike Minor; the return to form from Martin Prado; a healthy “I wanna get paid” year from Brian McCann; a better start and more consistency from Dan Uggla; and, most importantly, a healthy and “he has to be better because he can’t be worse” year from Jason Heyward.

Philadelphia Phillies

Chase Utley is hoping to play in spring training games within this week. Obviously his knee tendinitis will forever be an issue, but a great player like Utley doesn’t need the 6 weeks of spring training to be ready. Inside baseball people would never admit this for financial reasons, but spring training is far too long as it is. Pitchers need maybe 3 ½ weeks to be ready to start the season; hitters far less.

The Phillies are old; there are injury questions hovering around Roy Halladay (as much as people think he’s a machine, he’s not a machine.); their lineup is pockmarked and questionable; but with their starting rotation and bullpen addition of Jonathan Papelbon, they’ve got enough left for at least one more run.

Washington Nationals

They’re the next hot thing for many reasons.

They have a load of top-tier draft picks ready to make the move into big league notoriety; they’ve accumulated starting pitching; they have a devastating back-end of the bullpen; a lineup that can mash; and a veteran manager who has a history of winning.

They’re going to look back on Chien-Ming Wang’s injury and that they couldn’t follow through on a rumored trade of the severely underrated John Lannan and breathe a sigh of relief; the concept of bringing Bryce Harper to the big leagues at 19 needs to be considered carefully and he should not play center field; Gio Gonzalez is not the guarantee the bounty of prospects and expensive, unnecessary contract he received would indicate; and Stephen Strasburg can’t be considered an “ace” as long as he’s on a pitch/innings limit that Davey Johnson would undoubtedly love to toss into a nearby garbage can.

But they’re very talented and a viable contender.

Miami Marlins

Never mind the ownership, the new ballpark and the investigations swirling around the way said ballpark was approved and paid for. Forget about the monstrosity that will be on display whenever a Marlins’ player hits a home run and is sure to cause seizures among a large segment of unsuspecting fans. (See below.)

Cold, clinical analysis will tell you that this team is either going to be a major success or a testament to rubbernecking to see how quickly the clubhouse, manager’s office and front office degenerates into organizational cannibalism, whisper campaigns and a media feeding frenzy.

This is a powder keg. I don’t like powder kegs.

Ozzie Guillen’s teams with the White Sox consistently underachieved; Jose Reyes’s health is a question; Hanley Ramirez did not want to move to third base and is going to eventually pout about his contract; their defense is awful.

With a good pitching staff and all these questions, they could be good. With all the other issues, they could explode. Fast.

New York Mets

Yes. I’m a Mets fan.

Question my analysis, but don’t question my integrity.

Here are the facts: they’re in an impossible division; they’re short on starting pitching; they didn’t improve the club in the winter; the franchise is engulfed by the lawsuit against the Wilpons stemming from the Bernie Madoff mess; and they’re rebuilding.

They’re not good and they’re starting over with young players.

We won’t know much about the future of the Sandy Alderson-led baseball operations or what they’re going to do with players like David Wright until the trial is completed. They might be sold; the Wilpons might maintain ownership; the team might be slightly better than most projections depending on multiple factors.

It is what it is.

Accept it.

Click here for a full sample of Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide (this link is of the Blue Jays) of team predictions/projections. My book can be purchased on KindleSmashwordsBN and Lulu with other outlets on the way.

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Is Adam Jones Wearing a Ken Griffey Jr. Costume?

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Not that I’m aware of.

Adam Jones is not Ken Griffey, Jr.

In fact, Adam Jones isn’t even Brady Anderson.

But that’s not stopping the Orioles from horribly overvaluing Adam Jones. Nor is it answering the questions of why the Braves were asking about Jones and at least willing to discuss Jair Jurrjens and Martin Prado in a trade for him to begin with.

If Orioles GM Dan Duquette indeed asked for Jurrjens, Prado and “at least two” of the following: Brandon Beachy, Randall Delgado, Arodys Vizcaino Julio Teheran and Mike Minor, then it’s clear that time away from the trenches didn’t mellow Duquette’s trading style at all. His method of dealing as GM of the Red Sox and Expos was to offer what he was willing to trade and ask for about a 60% markup on what it was worth. Sometimes it actually worked as evidenced by his trade for Pedro Martinez and when he acquired Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek for Heathcliff Slocumb.

Braves fans should be relieved that GM Frank Wren turned down that preposterous request.

But the Orioles are going to build around Jones? The Braves are pursuing him?

Why?

Jones’s star has fallen. In 2008, he was an excellent defensive center fielder; in 2009-2010 he was slightly above average; and he 2011, he wasn’t good at all.

At the plate, he seems to have some power.

“Seems” is the operative word because of his 25 homers in 2011, 19 came at Camden Yards. It could’ve been an anomaly because in prior years, his production was around even home to road, but it’s a concern especially if he’s being sent to Turner Field—not exactly a hitter’s paradise.

He doesn’t walk and strikes out a lot. His attitude left much to be desired before the arrival of Buck Showalter; the prior regime had told Jones he needed to play deeper in center field and he replied, “I’ll think about it.”

There haven’t been any public issues under Showalter.

And where are the Braves going to put him? In left field? If they’re going to do that, his poor defense in center field won’t matter, but if they’re even considering swapping Jurrjens and Prado for a bat, surely they can get someone who’s better than Jones.

The rumors are conflicting and the sense I get is that it’s more rumormongering and blowing a casual chat out of proportion into a substantive negotiation in the interest of webhits and discussion on a slow baseball news day.

Either way, if the Braves are pursuing Jones and the Orioles are looking to build around him, each side needs to take a step back and examine him more closely because he’s nowhere near as valuable as they think he is.

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Lines Of Office

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I repeatedly tried to assuage the fears of Braves fans that Fredi Gonzalez was a strategically poor manager who got the job to replace Bobby Cox based on Braves ties and his reputation as a man who controlled the clubhouse.

He did some strange things as manager of the Marlins, but his teams were always competitive and—apart from Hanley Ramirez—played the game hard and correctly.

But 17 games into his first season as the Braves manager, Gonzalez is inviting legitimate bewilderment into his decisions. Not only is he backtracking on his statements that implied he was sticking with his choices for the time being as was the case with Jason Heyward batting sixth (he’s now batting second); but he’s also vacillated on the spring training pronouncement that both Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel would be used as the designated closer based on matchups. It’s been Kimbrel, period.

Sunday’s game against the Mets was a case study in managerial idiocy that cost the Braves a win against a reeling and desperate club that resorted to using starting pitchers Chris Capuano and R.A. Dickey in relief to try and snap a 7-game losing streak.

In the second inning trailing 2-1, Gonzalez called for a suicide squeeze with Tommy Hanson at the plate, 2 strikes, 1 out and Eric Hinske on third. Hanson can’t hit; nor can he bunt. Hinske can’t run. It made absolutely no sense especially with Mets-killer Martin Prado on deck.

In the eighth inning, Brian McCann got picked off first base on a failed steal attempt with Hinske at the plate and Jason Isringhausen on the mound. Heyward had drilled Isringhausen’s first pitch over the center field fence; McCann had walked. With one out, the call was ludicrous with Hinske at the plate and Chipper Jones on deck.

The Braves fans who thought Gonzalez’s penchant for “doing stuff”—a common frailty among managers—was a recipe for disaster are seeing their nightmare come to life.

With a team this talented, presumably the manager’s game-costing decisions will be muted by sheer ability; but if the Wild Card/division comes down to one or two games, Gonzalez’s missteps could cost the Braves a playoff spot.

One unknown is where GM Frank Wren stands in all of this.

Does he question his manager—as is his right—after a gaffe-laden adventure like Sunday afternoon? Or does he let it go, confident that things will work out in the end?

If I were the GM, I’d be all over my manager for any decision I saw as questionable. It’s not out of line for the baseball boss of the organization to ask his field manager why he did what he did. There are the Tony La Russa-types who chafe at having their judgment and lines of office being crossed; they have a “how dare you?” reaction when questioned, but that shouldn’t preclude the GM from doing his job regardless of poor body language and short-tempered reactions from the manager.

It’s within the GM’s job description to oversee his manager. It’s not in the vein of a Moneyball-style middle-manager who takes orders, but an honest discussion between people who have to work together to make sure things run smoothly.

Did Wren step in with Heyward batting second? Possibly.

Did he question Gonzalez as to why he didn’t tell Hanson to stand there with the bat on his shoulder and wait to strike out to give Prado a chance to drive in runs? Why he had McCann stealing a base?

If he didn’t, he could’ve.

And should’ve.

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I’ll be hosting a discussion group on TheCopia.com starting this afternoon around 12:30-1:00 Eastern Time. Given my history of saying lots of stuff, it should be….interesting.

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