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Justin Upton Trade Already Haunting Diamondbacks — Berkon’s Beanballs

Justin Upton
Rob Carr, Getty Images

In 2011, Justin Upton emerged as an elite hitter in the major leagues. Upton, then 23 years old, already had a 26-home run season under his belt, but 2011 was different. His 141 OPS+ ranked just outside the top 10 in the National League, and his 31 home runs were tied for ninth. Upton’s maturation into one of the league’s finest hitters was not a surprise; success was always an expectation.

Upton was the first overall pick in the 2005 draft. After dominating at all levels in the minors, the Arizona Diamondbacks promoted the 19 year-old to the show — where he became a fixture in the Diamondbacks outfield for the next five seasons.

But after a rough 2012 season in which the hitter posted a comparatively mediocre .280/.355/.430 line and just 17 home runs, the formerly untouchable stud became expendable. Yet the player’s public availability was questionable.

When Kevin Towers took over the general manager duties, he publicized his plan to improve the team by reducing its total strikeouts. In 2011, the team collectively struck out 18.3 percent less than the 2010 squad — which, to Towers’ credit, was impressive. The team’s 94 wins weren’t necessarily a direct correlation to the drop in strikeouts, but Upton’s MVP-caliber contributions were.

However, after the 2012 Diamondbacks — and Upton — underachieved, Towers and manager Kirk Gibson more or less blamed Upton, or rather, Upton’s “style of play” for the fall off. Towers stated that, “We kind of like that gritty, hard-nosed player [...] That’s the way [manager Kirk Gibson] played the game [...] That’s how we won in 2011.” Even one of Upton’s former teammates claimed that outfielder, “Didn’t play with a high level of energy.”

Upton’s apparent lack of grittiness — despite, by far, being the Diamondbacks’ best player — was perplexing and offensive. No longer fitting the D’Backs mold, the team shipped Upton to the Atlanta Braves for Martin Prado and a package of unspectacular prospects.

The supposedly grittier Prado has only posted a .226/.277/.355 line with a mere 71 OPS+ so far in 2013. In addition, Randall Delgado, arguably the “best” prospect the Diamondbacks received in the trade, has hurled a worrisome 10.80 ERA, 2.20 WHIP and 1.21 K/BB over 15 innings at Triple-A.

By comparison, Justin Upton has arguably been the game’s best hitter in 2013. In 92 PAs, Upton has posted a .316/.402/.797 line with 11 HR, 16 RBI, 19 R, and 3 SB. The hitter’s 219 OPS+ not only shatters his previous rates, but would also have bested Buster Posey’s 2012 OPS+ by 48 points. In addition, the Atlanta Braves are leading the major leagues in wins — even outshining the Washington Nationals by five games.

The damage Kevin Towers has done to the Arizona Diamondbacks organization by dumping Justin Upton was foolhardy, and is now irrevocable. If not for emergence of Paul Goldschmidt, who has posted a .329/.426/.557 line this year, the D’Backs would really be in trouble as a franchise. Upton, who is just two seasons removed from a 5.1 WAR campaign, is well on his way to dousing that metric. And considering the hitter is just making $38.5 million through 2015, the Braves will have one of the game’s best hitters, in the prime of his career, at well under market price.

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