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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

January 10, 2013 at 8:56 PM

Just how much is too much for Justin Upton?


(Photo by Getty Images)

One MLB executive, according to a tweet earlier tonight from Ken Rosenthal, said that Justin Upton saved Jack Zduriencik’s job by vetoing the proposed trade.

The implication, of course, is that the Mariners were giving up way too much for Upton, and the nixing of the trade was a blessing in disguise for Seattle.

The Mariners are in a real plight right now. They are clearly not a desirable location for free agents. I believe that’s subject to change — Seattle was plenty desirable in the early 2000s, when the M’s were winning; the ballpark and the city haven’t changed; both are still jewels. What’s changed is the team, and its record of success. But facts are facts: Most big-time free agents — particularly hitters, which happens to be what they need most — at this point in time are reluctant to pin their future to the Mariners. The team has been so dreary for so long (seven last-place finishes in nine years), and the ballpark so deadly to offense, and to players’ stats, that it’s a very tough sell. The closer fences were supposed to help, and they might eventually, but until Safeco is proven to be a fairer ballpark, prime-time sluggers still won’t want to come to Seattle.

Adrian Beltre, no doubt, is Exhibit A for prospective free agents, a cautionary tale for what can happen to your career in Seattle. In five years with the Mariners, Beltre put up OPS’s of .716, .792, .802, .784 and .683; in the three years since he moved on to Boston and Texas, the OPS numbers for Beltre are .919, .892 and .921. He has more homers (96) in those three years than he had in five years in Seattle (93). Yeah, Beltre did make $64 million over five years; former Mariners officials have admitted they had to overpay to lure Beltre and Richie Sexson to sign as free agents. That may be even more the case now, with the Mariners’ legacy of losing having extended even further in the ensuing years, and their offensive futility having reached a much greater depth.

So far, however, they haven’t been able to sign anyone significant this winter in a fairly weak free agent field. Just Jason Bay, a reclaimation project, and Raul Ibanez, a part-time player at this stage of his career. They also traded Jason Vargas to get first baseman/DH Kendrys Morales from the Angels, giving them one more middle-of-the-order bat. I’ve heard they went hard early this winter after Torii Hunter (who wound up in Detroit, which apparently was his preference all along). Their pursuit of Josh Hamilton was well-documented, but wound up falling short. The Mariners were out-bid by the Angels, who gave Hamilton five years and $125 million. The Mariners reportedly offered four guaranteed years at $25 million each, plus two additional years with vesting options, kicking in at a fairly reasonable amount of plate appearances. Hamilton either didn’t view that as a good enough offer to lure him to Seattle, or he simply wanted to go to Anaheim more, regardless of the deal. Either way, no Hamilton.

The Mariners had some degree of interest in Mike Napoli and Nick Swisher, but both ended up elsewhere (though Napoli’s deal with the Red Sox remains unfinished because of issues over Napoli’s health). Michael Bourn, the best non-pitcher still on the market, doesn’t seem to interest them much, particularly at the cost of their first round draft pick (No. 12 overall), which they’d lose if they sign Bourn.

So now, with their options running out, and an offense that has only been modestly boosted (unless a lot of players have breakout years), the Mariners went hard, very hard, after Upton. This was a unique situation that made it not unlike a free agency pursuit, in that the player had the right (ultimately exercised) to walk away. So they had to win two battles: Make the best offer to the Diamondbacks, in a field crowded with teams who wanted Upton, and convince Upton to waive his no-trade clause.

In this case, batting .500 wasn’t good enough. They won over Arizona GM Kevin Towers with a powerhouse offer, but they couldn’t get Upton to agree to the deal, so it’s all for naught. I’m hearing that Upton, for whatever reason — team, ballpark, or something else — just has no interest in coming to Seattle. I know there’s the possibility the Mariners could make it worth Upton’s while by re-working his contract, which is how no-trade clauses sometimes get worked around. I don’t know if that’s already been broached, but it would stand to reason. From the sound of it, however, it’s an extreme longshot to get him to come here.

That said, let’s ponder the question of whether this was a deal that would have been good for the Mariners, had it gone through. Jerry Crasnick (@jcrasnick) of ESPN tweeted tonight, “One executive says #mariners were “clearly overpaying” for Upton and are “fortunate” trade with #dbacks fell through.”

As a reminder, by most accounts the Mariners are now believed to have been willing to send Taijuan Walker, Nick Franklin, Charlie Furbush and Stephen Pryor to the Diamondbacks for Upton.

That’s a jarring offer. Walker is their consensus top prospect and will probably be Top 10 in the majors in most rankings. Maybe top five. Franklin is in the Mariners’ top 5, and most likely top 25 overall. Furbush was a very effective left-handed reliever for Seattle last year. Pryor throws 100 mph.

I think the natural comparison is with the Erik Bedard trade, in which the Mariners gave up a blue-chip outfield prospect in Adam Jones, and a top pitching prospect in Chris Tillman, plus a useful but expendable reliever in George Sherrill, plus a couple of other pitching prospects who didn’t pan out. Jones has realized his potential and is now a budding star, if not superstar, for the Orioles. Sherrill made an All-Star team with the Orioles in his first year, then was traded in his second. Tillman struggled for a couple of years, but broke out last season with a 9-3 record and 2.93 ERA, and is now set in their rotation. As for Bedard, well, you all know that sad story.

Yeah, the deal was an overpay, but it would have been somewhat justifiable if Bedard didn’t turn out to be an injury-prone mope. It was a deal borne of desperation — the hot seats were all turned up high, and the Mariners were going for it, come hell or high water (or Carlos Silva). Jack Zduriencik has said many times this winter that he is not dealing out of desperation. But spring training is rapidly approaching, and the Mariners really, really need a bat. So this offer was made (painfully, I’m sure, with much discussion and trepidation) and accepted by Arizona GM Kevin Towers (as well it should have been; that deal could have been one with hugely beneficial long-term benefits for the Diamondbacks.)

But that doesn’t mean the Mariners shouldn’t have made it. That doesn’t mean it was another Bedard waiting to happen. For one thing, I like the chances of Upton panning out much more than Bedard; for some reason, he’s fallen out of favor with the Diamondbacks, leading to whispers there must some sort of issue with Upton. But Nick Piecoro, the long-time beat writer for the Arizona Republic, wrote this in November in a Q and A, answering the question of whether Upton is a bad clubhouse guy:

“I can see why you’d ask that. But I’ve covered him his whole career and while he’s been a little immature at times — but come on, he reached the big leagues at 19, let’s cut him some slack there — I can’t remember ever hearing teammates say he doesn’t care about winning or doesn’t work hard. Personally, I’ve never had a problem with him. He’s always accountable and available. He’s a good guy.”

And a potentially great talent, which few would deny. He’s been inconsistent, but at age 25, the upside for Upton remains immense.

Again, the Mariners really, really need hitters, especially high impact hitters. Giving up Taijuan Walker would pain me no end. I love the guy’s potential (and he’s a great young man to boot), and see him as a No. 1 or No. 2 in the near future. But the Mariners have other pitching prospects, good ones, so I think they could overcome that, even if Walker blossomed the way I, and scouts, think he will.

I like Franklin a lot, too. What’s not to like — a switch-hitter with power, just 21, and already up to Triple-A with great success as he moves up the ladder. But increasingly we’re hearing that he’s not going to make it to the big leagues as a shortstop; more likely as a second baseman, because of throwing issues. If true, that makes him somewhat less valuable, of course, but I expect Franklin will have a solid big-league career. Maybe better than that. He’s another guy whose departure could haunt the Mariners, but if he’s not a shortstop, but rather a second baseman, well, the Mariners have those (Dustin Ackley, or maybe Stefen Romero, or even Kyle Seager if someone else develops at third).

The other two would be very useful bullpen pieces, but those can be replaced. Zduriencik has shown a knack for building strong bullpens via the draft and wise acquisitions. And as Dave Cameron pointed out, you just never know with young arms. The odds say that one of them has a chance to break down, just because that’s what happens to young pitchers.

So yes, the deal would have been a gamble for the Mariners. Yes, it was probably an overpay. Yes, it had a chance to backfire, and to haunt the Mariners down the road..

But you know what? I see why Zduriencik did it, and, push come to shove, I would have as well. Because when overpaying is your only option, well, did I mention they really, really need a bat like Upton’s.

That’s a lot of words for a moot point, isn’t it? Maybe someday we’ll get to have the same discussion, only not hypothetical, about a package for Giancarlo Stanton.



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