Notes and thoughts on the Justin Upton trade

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Braves acquire OF Justin Upton and 3B Chris Johnson from Diamondbacks for 3B Martin Prado, RHP Randall Delgado, RHP Zeke Spruill, SS Nick Ahmed and 1B Brandon Drury.

– As some probably guessed, I’m a big fan of this deal for the Braves. I wrote an entry trying to pair the Upton brothers in Atlanta before the Braves had B.J. signed.

That said, I would have liked this deal a bit more two months ago, when the Braves would have had more flexibility to deal with the losses of Prado and Delgado. I still think it’s a great value trade, and I expect that the competitive Upton brothers could push one another to new heights. Prado is a very good player right now, but he was under control for just one more year and I don’t think he’ll live up to his next contract. I’ve never seen Delgado as much more than a No. 4 starter. None of the prospects are elite talents. I’m surprised the Diamondbacks didn’t insist on right-hander J.R. Graham in the deal.

– As for the Diamondbacks, well, there’s really been no plan from the beginning. They’ve now parted with two terrific young talents in Upton and Trevor Bauer and still haven’t set themselves up as obvious contenders for 2013.

Here’s a possible lineup:

CF Adam Eaton
3B Martin Prado
2B Aaron Hill
LF Jason Kubel
1B Paul Goldschmidt
C Miguel Montero
RF Cody Ross
SS Didi Gregorius/Cliff Pennington

That’s certainly not bad. A rotation of Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill, Wade Miley, Brandon McCarthy and Delgado/Tyler Skaggs/Patrick Corbin is also pretty good.

Still, this is a team without a definite All-Star and it’s going up against a Dodgers club full of them and the defending world champs in San Francisco. Towers did add some nice minor league depth today, but he’s still given away arguably his two top talents and inflated the payroll, all for an 85-win, third-place team.

– The Diamondbacks just keep backing themselves into corners. It’s what forced them to trade Upton. And now it’s going to force them to give Prado a big extension, since there’s no way they’re going to let the key piece in the deal leave after one year.

Prado has hit .300 and topped a .350 OBP in three of his four full seasons in the bigs. I’ll be curious to see whether his terrific 69/58 K/BB ratio from last season holds up or if he reverts to previous form (86/40 K/BB in 2010, 52/34 in 129 games in 2011). A quality walk total will make the difference between him being an above average regular or an overpriced mediocrity in those seasons in which he hits .280 or so. And he will have those seasons after turning 30. The Diamondbacks are probably going to have to give him $30 million-$36 million for three seasons, and I have my doubts he’ll prove worth it.

A Prado extension would also cut off prospect Matt Davidson’s current path to the majors, though I don’t really see that as a problem. He projects better in left field than third base anyway. And if the Diamondbacks did want to leave him at third base, they could put Prado back in left field in 2014.

– This trade does leave the Braves lineup in a bit of a weird place. Prado was their only great option to bat first or second this season. Right now, we might be looking at:

SS Andrelton Simmons
CF B.J. Upton
RF Jason Heyward
LF Justin Upton
1B Freddie Freeman
2B Dan Uggla
C Brian McCann
3B Juan Francisco/Chris Johnson

With McCann set to miss at least the first few weeks following shoulder surgery, the third baseman will likely bat seventh, putting Gerald Laird in the eighth spot.

This arrangement will work out just fine if Simmons builds on his .289/.335/.416 line from his rookie campaign. I’m not sure the Braves can count on that, though.

And then there’s B.J. Upton, whose OPS went from .331 in 2011 to .298 last year. If he comes back in at .330 or so, he’d be an asset at the top of the order. If not, he’s a problem.

The Braves could always drop either Simmons or B.J. and simply move everyone else up a spot. I’d be good with Heyward batting second and Justin hitting third. I’m guessing that’s not how Fredi Gonzalez will want to play it, though.

– At third base, the current play should be to play Francisco versus righties and Johnson versus lefties. Johnson will get a chance to win the starting job outright, but I’m not a fan at all. He’s a poor defender, and while he does have pop, I doubt he’ll hit .281 again.

One potential problem with the platoon: the right-handed-hitting Johnson has actually performed much better against righties (.283/.323/.452 in 896 AB) than lefties (.255/.294/.372) in his career. Still, I think Francisco will outhit him against righties.

– Now that the Braves have question marks at the back of the rotation and at third base, they should be in contact with some free agents. Roy Oswalt and Javier Vazquez would make tons of sense as the new fifth starter. Vazquez would likely come cheaper, and Atlanta is about as close as he can get to his home in Puerto Rico. Of course, he pitched for the Braves in 2009 and went 15-10 with a 2.87 ERA. Some other inexpensive possibilities: Carlos Zambrano, Carl Pavano, Kevin Millwood, Freddy Garcia and Chris Young.

For third base, it makes plenty of sense to check in with Scott Rolen and see if he has any interest in a part-time role. I’d take him over Johnson to pair with Francisco. And I know this won’t be very popular, but it’s worth offering Chone Figgins a minor league contract. The smart money says he’s done as a useful player at 35, but if he does have something left, he’d be a pretty great fit on a team with little speed, no obvious leadoff man and no plus defensive third basemen.

Nats’ success shouldn’t be about Bryce Harper

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Bryce Harper turns 27 years old today. As an early birthday present, he got to watch his former team reach the World Series for the first time in franchise history. His new team finished exactly at .500 in fourth place, missing the playoffs. These were facts that did not go unnoticed as the Nationals completed an NLCS sweep of the Cardinals at home last night.

Harper spent seven seasons with the Nationals before hitting free agency and ultimately signing with the Phillies on a 13-million, $330 million contract. The Nationals offered Harper a 10-year, $300 million contract at the end of the 2018 regular season, but about $100 million of that was deferred until he was 65 which lowered the present-day value of the offer. The Nats’ offer wasn’t even in the same ballpark, really.

Nevertheless, Nationals fans were upset that their prodigy jilted them to go to the Phillies. He was mercilessly booed whenever the Phillies played in D.C. Nats fans’ Harper jerseys were destroyed, or at least taped over.

Harper, of course, was phenomenal with the Nationals. He won the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 2012, then won the NL MVP Award several years later with an historically outstanding 1.109 OPS while leading the league with 42 homers and 118 runs scored. Overall, as a National, he had a .900 OPS. Pretty good. He was also productive in the postseason, posting an .801 OPS across 19 games, mostly against playoff teams’ best starters and best relievers. Furthermore, if the Nats had Harper this year, he would have been in right field in lieu of Adam Eaton. Harper out OPS’d Eaton by 90 points and posted 2.5 more WAR in a similar amount of playing time. The Nationals would have been even better if they had Harper this year.

The Nationals lost all four Division Series they appeared in during the Harper era. 3-2 to the Cardinals in 2012, 3-1 to the Giants in ’14, 3-2 to the Dodgers in ’16, and 3-2 to the Cubs in ’17. They finally get over the hump the first year they’re without Harper, that’s the difference, right? I saw the phrase “addition by subtraction” repeatedly last night, referring to Harper and the Nats’ subsequent success without him.

Harper, though, didn’t fork over four runs to the Cardinals in the top of the ninth inning in Game 5 in 2012. He didn’t allow the Dodgers to rally for four runs in the seventh inning of Game 5 in ’16 before ultimately losing 4-3. He didn’t use a gassed Max Scherzer in relief in 2017’s Game 5, when he allowed five of the seven Cubs he faced to reach base, leading to three runs which loomed large in a 9-8 loss. If certain rolls of the dice in those years had gone the Nationals’ way, they would have appeared in the NLCS. They might’ve even been able to win a World Series.

The Nationals saw how that looks this year. It was the opposing manager this time, Dave Roberts, who mismanaged his bullpen. Howie Kendrick then hit a tie-breaking grand slam in the 10th inning off of Joe Kelly to win the NLDS for the Nats. The playoffs are random. Sometimes a ball bounces your way, sometimes an umpire’s call goes your way, and sometimes the opposing manager makes several unforced errors to throw Game 5 in your lap.

Reaching the World Series, then thumbing your nose while sticking out your tongue at Harper feels like a guy tagging his ex-girlfriend on his new wedding photos. It’s time to move on.