The Rejected Justin Upton Trade: Q&A

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The general reaction to the proposed Justin Upton trade from the Diamondbacks to the Mariners has been, “Why?”

Why would the Diamondbacks and GM Kevin Towers bother negotiating and completing the deal pending Upton’s approval while knowing that approval wasn’t going to come?

Why would the Mariners make such a deal while surrendering four players—Charlie Furbush, Nick Franklin, Stephen Pryor and Taijuan Walker—when the general consensus is that they need more than Upton to compete in a tough division?

Let’s discuss the answers.

Why did Towers bother?

Towers has no choice now. He has to get Upton out of there. He’s put himself in this position and there are lingering questions as to why there’s such a desperation to get rid of a 25-year-old, power hitting right fielder who’s signed to a reasonable contract. Usually in such a case there’s an obvious reason such as open animosity between player and club, money, poor performance or a rebuilding process. None of this is evident with Upton and the Diamondbacks. This is going to permeate the dealmaking process and clubs interested in Upton who may not have heard whispers (if they exist) of the real reason Upton’s available will hesitate and want an answer before they surrender a package similar to the Mariners.

The Mariners offer is important. Furbush is a useful lefty specialist, but the other players are significant. Pryor is a potential closer; Walker has a great power arm; Franklin is a former first round pick as a middle infielder with pop.

Towers was reportedly aware that Upton wasn’t going to okay the deal and perhaps he was hoping that the wearing down of the trade rumors that have gone on for over a year might spur Upton to say, “Let me outta here already.” But it was also a message to the rest of baseball that the cost for Upton is going to be steep for a deal to get done.

It makes sense in a way, but it might have backfired for Towers as the desire to trade Upton has now become a need. The difference between “I will” and “I must” is stark and the Diamondbacks have almost completely crossed that threshold. By that logic, they’re going to wind up with far less for Upton than what they were getting from the Mariners.

How did this help the Mariners?

On the surface, it’s a logical progression to use their farm system to acquire a superstar talent they’ll have at a reasonable cost for the next three years, but the Mariners knew that Upton would reject the trade just like the Diamondbacks did. But they tried anyway. Why?

Here’s why: Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik is in the final year of his contract. A surprising (and lucky) 85 wins in what was supposed to be year one of a rebuild in 2009 has lost its luster. He was referred to as a “genius,” and a new age thinker who used both scouting experience and new age stats to run his club. But disastrous signings such as Chone Figgins and off-field missteps like the allegations of lying in the entirety of his Cliff Lee dealings with the Yankees and subsequently trading for an accused rapist Josh Lueke made Zduriencik appear shady and amoral.

Whether it’s a fair assessment or not is irrelevant. If the on-field product had been better, these issues could be glossed over, but the on-field product has been awful and no one wants to hear about a rebuilt farm system. The Mariners have finished in last place in the AL West in each of the past three seasons and are desperately flinging things at the wall—Raul Ibanez, Jason Bay, Upton, flirting with Josh Hamilton, bringing in the fences at Safeco Field—and hoping to regain some attention from a fan base that’s stopped coming to the park.

Forgetting the on-field issues, here’s the bottom line: when Pat Gillick and Lou Piniella were running the place, the Mariners were first in attendance in baseball in 2001-2002. The last year when Bill Bavasi was GM in 2008 they lost 100 games and were sixth in attendance. In 2009, when they won those 85 games, they were seventh. In 2010, the year they acquired Lee to couple with Felix Hernandez and the Mariners were a trendy pick to make the playoffs, they were seventh. They were eighth in 2010 and 2011 and eleventh in 2012. It gets worse from there unless major names are acquired. They tried that with Upton and he said no.

With Ichiro Suzuki no longer there as a nominal drawing card, what possible reason other than King Felix is there to go see the games as long as the fans don’t think there’s any chance for them to win in a division with the Rangers, Angels and A’s?

The Upton trade was desperation, pure and simple, because Zduriencik’s job is on the line and if the season goes poorly without legitimate improvement, he’s getting fired. In fact, he might get fired during the season before the beginning of summer.

Was it worth it to the Diamondbacks and Mariners?

It was only worth it if they had convinced Upton to accept the trade before it leaked to the media. They didn’t. Now matters are worse for both. In the end, it was a huge gaffe that will define the organizations until the situations are settled and that settlement may not end as either Towers or Zduriencik envisioned unless they accounted for a worst case scenario that is looking more and more likely with each passing day.

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Why Are the Diamondbacks So Desperate to Deal Justin Upton?

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The proposed trade of Justin Upton to the Mariners was rejected by Upton because the Mariners are one of four clubs on his no-trade list. With a heavy return consisting of a situational lefty (Charlie Furbush), a young middle infield prospect (Nick Franklin), a young righty reliever with closer potential (Stephen Pryor), and one of the following young starters: Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen or James Paxton, in theory the trade made sense for the Diamondbacks. Given their overflow of outfielders, someone (or two) has to go.

It has seemed at times that Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers is collecting outfielders just for the sake of it. Apart from the Upton trade talks a year ago, there was no reason for him to pay $16 million last winter to sign Jason Kubel when Kubel was replacing Gerardo Parra who had a career year offensively and defensively—winning a Gold Glove—in 2011. He signed Kubel anyway. Kubel had a hot start to the season making the signing look like the work of a genius, but once the National League figured out Kubel’s weaknesses (he has a slow bat and doesn’t hit lefties), he had a dreadful second half.

This winter, Towers replicated the Kubel signing more expensively from the opposite side of the plate by signing Cody Ross to a 3-year, $26 million contract. Ross can hit both lefties and righties and can crush a fastball, so he’s more of an everyday player than Kubel, but there’s a glaring redundancy of the flawed outfielders that Towers insists on signing to fill holes that didn’t exist.

Compounded by the trade of Chris Young to the Athletics for a no-hit shortstop Cliff Pennington, the Diamondbacks now have three no-hit shortstops with Pennington, Willie Bloomquist and John McDonald. In addition, they traded their top young pitching prospect Trevor Bauer in a three-way trade to bring in a young shortstop, Didi Gregorius, who Towers ridiculously compared to Derek Jeter. Bauer had made no friends in the organization with his mouth and unwillingness to listen to suggestions from anyone and didn’t hesitate to make that known publicly. But Towers drafted Bauer. Shouldn’t he have been aware of his personality before the fact?

Interestingly, one of the reasons the Diamondbacks—under former GM Josh Byrnes—were able to acquire Ian Kennedy was because the Yankees had tired of his mouth and he didn’t listen.

Like the line from the film The Town, “You need a Venn diagram for these people.”

When Towers was hired, the Diamondbacks were an organization in apparent disarray. In the midst of a 2010 season in which they’d lose 97 games, they fired their longtime GM Byrnes at mid-season along with his hand-picked, inexperienced manager A.J. Hinch and replaced them with Jerry Dipoto and Kirk Gibson. Dipoto made several housecleaning trades that set the stage for the club’s stunning division title in 2011. Towers rebuilt the bullpen. The one thing Towers is good at is building a bullpen. Apart from that, his history has been one of haphazard, lateral maneuvers and a significant amount of luck.

No one has come up with an acceptable reason that Upton is on the block to begin with.

Is it attitude? There’s never been a report of Upton causing problems and he’s certainly got a better reputation than his brother B.J. Upton. The same B.J. Upton to whom the notoriously prickly and behavior-oriented Braves just gave $75 million. Any off-field problems and desire for “good guys” is counteracted by the Diamondbacks trading for Heath Bell. When compiling a list of players with bad reputations, Bell will be in everyone’s top 10.

Playing ability? Upton was the first overall pick in the 2005 MLB Draft, is a power hitter with speed and is a good defensive right fielder.

Age? He’ll be 26 in August.

Money? He’s signed at a comparatively cheap $38.5 million through 2015.

A better replacement? They don’t have a better replacement.

I suppose you can make the argument that he’s their biggest asset and would yield the largest return, but the team is trying to win. Doesn’t Upton help them in that goal better than replacing him with some conglomeration of a Furbush, Ross, Kubel and a mass of young players that may or may not make it?

In looking for a “why?” of Towers’s frantic attempts to trade Upton that seemingly were in place immediately upon getting the job, his accompanying decisions have made clear that there may not be a reason and if there is, the public doesn’t know about it. But we can only judge by what’s known and via that metric, combined with the other things Towers has done in his time on the job, Upton’s availability not as a “we’ll listen,” but as a “we have to get this guy outta here,” simply doesn’t pass the smell test.

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