Lots of talk about Justin Upton around these parts in recent days. Yes, the Mariners are interested in taking a look at the 23-year-old Diamondbacks right fielder, who was put on the trade market — at least verbally — by Arizona this week. I mean, you’d have to be nuts not to be interested in a guy that young, locked up through 2015, who would instantly be the best hitter on this Seattle club.
Yeah, he strikes out a ton. But when your on-base percentage is in the .350 range, you don’t care as much about whiffs. As long as you don’t have a lineup full of high strikeout guys, you can live with it in Upton when he’s producing other numbers — like an OPS up near .900.
He plays above average defense as well. Deal for him and the Mariners would have the game’s top outfield — and have it for possibly years to come.
The catch? He’ll probably cost you at least — and I’m saying at least — two of the Big Three prospects in Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak and Michael Pineda. Don’t agree? Guess again. The Mariners aren’t the only team interested in Upton. The only reason Arizona wants to deal him is to rebuild their team on-the-fly with major league ready prospects.
Could I part with Ackley and Smoak, or Smoak and Pineda? I think so. And more importantly, in the end, I think Jack Zduriencik might as well.
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The one thing Zduriencik has been pretty consistent about is drawing a fine line between prospects and proven MLB players.
Upton has proven, thus far, to be a very good MLB player. He might even become the game’s next young superstar. Not yet, but he could.
Even if he doesn’t, he is already a discernable notch above either of the Smoak-Ackley-Pineda trio. Neither of those three guys has proven a thing at the big-league level. Upton already has proven a whole lot and he’s still of prospect age.
Remember when we talked about this team needing to make a game-changing move? Like trying to acquire Grady Sizemore to play left field?
Well, an Upton trade would be a game-changer.
You’d have Upton in left field, shifting over from the other corner, then Franklin Gutierrez in center and Ichiro in right. You’d address the team’s power needs in at least one corner spot, upgrade team defense and have long-term cost certainty.
That’s a game-changer.
Would it hurt to lose the prospects? Sure, it could.
Arizona just traded for New York Yankees Class AAA first baseman Juan Miranda yesterday, so I’m not sure what that does to the Smoak part of the equation. Smoak is the higher-regarded of the two in the prospect world and it’s possible the D-Backs — who gave up a Class A pitcher in the deal — could relegate Miranda to bench duty if they acquired a superior first baseman.
But upgrading left field, for me, is a higher priority than first base. You can find first base power easier than you can find an all-around above average left fielder. I hear Russell Branyan is available short-term. Longer-term? It’s still easier to find a cost-effective first baseman than a left fielder, or just about any other position for that matter — which is why so many eyebrows were raised when the M’s chose Smoak over Yankees catching prospect Jesus Montero last July as the prime return in the Cliff Lee deal.
Would dealing Ackley hurt the team? Not necessarily. The jury is still out on his defensive abilities and that’s going to matter a whole lot. We’re not privy to what Zduriencik and his top aides really think about Ackley’s defensive potential. So far, from what others have reported, Ackley is projecting as an average glove up the middle.
And at the plate, he’s never going to be A-Rod. He is being projected as a solid, potential .300 line drive hitter. Combine that with above average defense and you’re talking perennial all-star. But without the glove? Well, remember, Jose Lopez was a 25-homer second baseman in 2009. How many of you thought he was untouchable? Ackley looks like he’ll be a superior OBP guy compared to Lopez, but who really knows? Remember, Ackley is still a prospect. He hasn’t played in the big leagues where Lopez has proven himself there at some level.
Bottom line? Ackley as he looks right now should not halt an Upton deal. You can find line drive hitting second basemen to fill in for a couple of years until you figure out what else you’re going to do. Orlando Hudson was on the market just last winter and wasn’t signed until the very end. Don’t forget, you still have Carlos Triunfel in the minors and — despite a downturn the last couple of seasons — he’s still young. Also, the M’s do have the No. 2 overall pick this coming June, so giving one up from 2009 probably won’t have the franchise-crippling effect some imagine.
What would the team lose in Pineda? Possibly a top-of-the-rotation arm. Or, potentially a bust. You never know with pitchers. But even if Pineda does develop into a solid No. 1 or No. 2 starter three or four years down the road — remember, Brandon Morrow will be entering his fifth season of big league ball next year and we still don’t know where he’s going to be — the Mariners are not operating with unlimited time here.
The fact is, Felix Hernandez has four seasons left on his long-term deal. Gutierrez has only three years remaining. Seattle didn’t ink them to long-term contracts hoping to become competitive by 2014. The window on them is closing. Slowly, but it’s closing. If you’re the Mariners, you’d have to think they want at least two years of Gutierrez and three of Hernadez on a contending team.
That means, contending by 2012.
Bring Upton aboard, you’re that much closer. Cling to your prospects, no matter how good they project to be, and you’re probably sacrificing some of that Hernandez-Gutierrez time. And that’s hurting your “youth movement” in a large way, far greater than signing some vet to take playing time away from Adam Moore or Michael Saunders.
In the case of Saunders, he’d likely have to go in any Upton deal as well. If you manage to hang on to him, he’d make a good fourth outfielder in an Upton-Gutierrez-Ichiro outfield. And hey, if Saunders ever takes that next step to “good” or “very good” MLB player, it’s a great luxury.
Don’t forget, Ichiro’s contract runs out after two more seasons. And while we all assume he’ll play until his late-40s and stay in Seattle, you never know. Upton gives you right field insurance as a future replacement.
His cost isn’t a bank breaker. He’s got just under $50 million owed him through 2015 and comes in at $4.25 million next season. His cost through 2012 is less than what Milton Bradley stands to make this coming year.
Zduriencik and D-Backs GM Kevin Towers have a solid relationship from which to do any negotiating. And Towers is already familliar with Seattle’s system. Don’t forget, a year and a half ago when Towers was still GM of the Padres, San Diego, the Red Sox and Seattle were exploring a potential three-way deal for Felix Hernandez. You can bet Towers looked at Seattle’s system inside out, even though Zduriencik later said he quickly quashed any three-way Hernandez talks before they ever really got anywhere.
So yeah, if you’re Zduriencik, you’d be foolish not to consider an Upton deal to jumpstart your rebuilding plan in a big way.
And if you’re an M’s fan, you’d be foolish to think Seattle could pull off an Upton trade without losing at least two of the Big Three prospects plus some other bodies. But if there’s one thing you can count on with Zduriencik, it’s this: he won’t fall in love with prospects just because they’re young and have good minor league stats. He knows the difference. And if he sees an Upton-for-prospects deal that makes sense, he’ll likely push that gamble far further than the average fan would.
Bank on it. Because it will take more than most fans can stomach to land a game-changer like Upton.