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.

Agent: Nick Senzel’s reassigment ‘egregious case of service time manipulation’

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Reds prospect Nick Senzel is ready for the majors. Although he battled injuries, the 23-year-old performed well with Triple-A Louisville last season, batting .310/.378/.509 with 20 extra-base hits, 25 RBI, 23 runs scored, and eight stolen bases in 193 plate appearances. Senzel has also performed well this spring, batting .308 across 39 at-bats.

The Reds, however, announced on Friday that Senzel was among a handful of players reassigned to minor league camp. Senzel was drafted as a third baseman, began playing second base last year, and had been playing in center field during spring training. The common thought is that the Reds, who have built a competitive roster, will keep Senzel at Triple-A to begin the season and call him up right after the club secures an extra year of contractual control.

Per ESPN’s Jeff Passan, Senzel’s agent Joel Wolfe calls Senzel’s reassignment an “egregious case of service time manipulation.” The full quote:

I don’t believe I’ve ever made public statements on this issue in my career, but I feel compelled to do so in this case where it feels like a simply egregious case of service time manipulation.

We are well aware of the mandate from ownership for the Reds to win this year — and this seems to fly in the face of it. The NL Central was decided by one game last year. Every game matters. This is a shortsighted move that may be frugal now but could cost them dearly later.

Nick Senzel is not a young prospect. He’s a major league-ready impact-type player. He has done everything they’ve asked this spring, including working hard to become a major league center fielder.

Nick takes pride in wearing the Reds uniform. He appreciates how much support he’s received from Reds fans. He’s going to go to Triple-A and prove every day he belongs in MLB.

We have covered the service time manipulation issue pretty extensively here, so Wolfe’s statement doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Prior to an injury, the Blue Jays were going to undeservingly stuff Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. — baseball’s No. 1 prospect — at Triple-A for the first two weeks or so of the season. The White Sox were going to do the same with Eloy Jiménez before using their leverage to nudge him into inking an extension. The Braves toyed with Ronald Acuña Jr.’s playing time last year. Kris Bryant and Maikel Franco filed respective grievances against the Cubs and Phillies for service time manipulation several years ago.

Team executives don’t outright admit to gaming a prospect’s service time to gain that extra year of control because that’s how one loses a grievance. They dance around the topic by making a nebulous claim, typically about the player’s defense needing to be worked on at Triple-A. That’s what the Cubs said about Bryant, and it’s what the Jays said about Guerrero. It’s a subjective enough evaluation that it can’t be falsified. It’s why the grievances that have been filed over this have fizzled out and it’s why more and more teams have brazenly joined the service time manipulation bandwagon.

Senzel’s case is, admittedly, a bit more murky. Though he performed well this spring, Scott Schebler has outperformed him, batting .379 with five extra-base hits and 11 walks in roughly 40 trips to the plate. The starting spot in right field is taken by Yasiel Puig and left field is taken by Jesse Winker. Schebler has ostensibly earned the starting job in center. I can’t imagine Wolfe having a compelling case if he were to file a grievance on Senzel’s behalf.

That being said, it is important that agents (and the MLBPA) speak out about this when they can. Senzel’s case may not be open-and-shut, but bringing service time manipulation into the public consciousness will have a lasting impact ahead of the December 2021 expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement. Holding team executives publicly accountable may make them less willing to manipulate their players’ service time going forward, as it may sour what could otherwise be a terrific relationship between team and player. Service time manipulation is an important piece of the labor puzzle and those on the players’ side have to seize whatever they can to potentially gain leverage. Awareness leads to solidarity.