Saturday, November 20, 2010

Why not to trade for Justin Upton

On the surface, trading for Justin Upton makes superficial sense for all the reasons that basically every decision made by Ruben Amaro over the past two years has not. If you are not familiar with Amaro’s work, please stop reading this entry and immediately go to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. If you can view the contract numbers for Lidge, Ibanez, or Howard without giggling, please stop reading this blog as we are obviously not intended for you. The previous few years have seen teams place greater value on their younger players, as more general managers have become conscious of the fact that a deep pool of young, cost-controlled talent is the basis for being a successful organization. Several years may pass before a player of Upton’s perceived caliber is placed on the trading block again. However, it is my position that this trade is untenable for two significant reasons. Justin Upton’s uncertain future production and the price and opportunity cost of the prospects necessary to make this trade.

If we look deep down beneath the mountain of hype that is Justin Upton, we see that he is just not a very good hitter. Upton’s Career wRC+ of 115 places him in the hallowed company of players such as George Bell, Greg Vaughn, and Geoff Jenkins. His career K% has him sharing a neighborhood with Pete Inciviglia and Brad Wilkerson. The high K rate is most likely related to a contact% that finds him sandwiched between Weeks and LaRoche. High strikeout rates such as these are often found on power hitters whose 3 True Outcomes focus leads to the feast or famine results synonymous with Adam Dunn or Jack Cust. However, Upton has managed to hit only 43 home runs in his past two seasons. This is particularly disappointing given that he plays half of his games in Kelly Johnson Resurrection Field. If you would like to argue that I cherry picked metrics that portray Upton in a negative light, go ahead and do so. Afterwards, post a comment showing the metrics that portray him positively. Through his first few years, Upton has been little more than a slightly above average hitter and has shown very little to support any evolution into an elite level batsman at the major league level. Upton does rate as an above average fielder, more or less so depending on the metric used. However, as a total package, the propaganda has outweighed the production.

The second and most important issue with this trade is found in the price hanging over Upton’s head. Kevin Towers has not officially announced trade parameters so any assumption on exactly what it will take to acquire Upton remains supposition. However, a variety of media sources has suggested that it will take 3 to 5 major league ready players and prospects to complete the deal. Dave Cameron, using Victor Wang’s estimate of prospect value, argued that a team would need to give up a top-10 hitting and pitching prospect in order to acquire Upton. I happen to root for the Red Sox and the closest thing we could assemble to such a package would most likely involve several of the following players: Daniel Bard, Jacoby Ellsbury, Casey Kelly, Ryan Kalish, Jed Lowrie, and Anthony Rizzo. I did not list Buchholz because I assume he is off the board in any but the most ridiculous of trades; i.e., heads up for Pujols or King Felix. The loss of this many prospects and young player would cripple the Red Sox’s already flailing farm system. In addition, the wholesale movement of these players would prevent the team from improving itself in any further trades. While I could do a separate post on why I would rather Theo trade for A-Gon than Upton, suffice it to say that I would much rather acquire the better player at the lower price.

Justin Upton remains a young player with unknown potential. I happen to believe that it is less than prudent to pay for that potential, especially when one examines Upton’s hitting flaws and the cost of the trade both now and in the future. I would rather save the prospects in the hopes that Dayton Moore loses his last functioning neuron and begins a fire sale of the Kansas City Royals’ admirably stocked farm system.


  1. ok here's what i don't get:
    the red sox (my team as well) already have a player that is better than upton in ellsbury.
    upton has 80+/- games more experience than ells, so the comparisons are pretty straightforward.
    ells upton
    ab 1372 1517
    hits 399 413
    hr 20 60
    sb 136 41
    avg .291 .272
    so 178 447
    salary 400k 700k
    why would we give up ellsbury plus anyone in order to get upton?
    are we really that down on him because he broke his ribs? and had his own doctor? boras is his agent?
    what is the deal?
    it seems like if ellsbury were on any other team we would trade everything to get him.

  2. Josh is actually arguing against trading for Upton. That said, in a theoretical heads up match up though, Upton crushes Ellsbury. For starters, Upton is four years younger than Ellsbury. Upton hits for more power, gets on base more frequently, and plays better defense. Ellsbury, at 27, has likely reached (or is about to reach) his peak. He probably won't get much too better than what we've seen so far. Upton, on the other hand, is just getting ready to enter his prime. His upside potential is far greater than that of Ellsbury.

  3. I get that Josh is arguing against trading for Upton.
    Let me also say that I think that your blog is one of the better ones out there. It is thoughtful and insightful. Well done.
    My point speaks more to the 'grass is greener' mentality that permeates Red Sox Nation.
    I don't think that we should trade for Upton either and I would be surprised if the Front Office does.
    As to your response:
    Yes, Upton hits for much more power and has a slight advantage obp-wise (by 8 pts.) He also strikes out a significant amount more and gidp more.
    There was an interesting article recently about judging young players' ceilings...
    ... it talks about the expectation that a 23 year old will improve on an arc as he gets older (a .270 hitter will become a .300 hitter) and how that is seldom the case. Indeed that Upton may have reached a plateau in his development. We see Upton start out strong and expect that he is the next coming of Ken Griffey Jr. My point is that if we were viewing Ellsbury from another team we would see him as the next Ricky Henderson. Neither comparison is fair and it is likely that both will be good players into the future, but not Hall of Famers like the two mentioned.
    We could go all day about strength of divisions and prevalent ball parks and the pressure of the AL East and the line-ups that they hit in (his brother has shown flashes but never has put it together for any length of time) and I think, if we are honest about it, that neither crushes the other.
    Even if Ellsbury has peaked (doubtful) or is close he is still a .300 hitter that scores a run 44% of the times he gets on base* in the most pressurized division in sports.
    If the deal were straight up, I would do it, sure. But add a potentially elite closer (Bard), or an at worst defensive wiz (Iglesias) or really anyone else... I agree. No way.

    *Ells has gotten on base 501 times (399 hits + 102 bb) of those 501 times he has scored 222 times (about 44%.)

  4. Khalid -

    First of all, thank you for your compliment. I really appreciate it. Secondly, while I agree there is definitely a "grass is greener" mentality in RSN, I'm not sure it exists between Ellsbury and Upton. RS fans have unfairly soured on Ellsbury due to last year's injury situation, which is unfair. That said, outside of his elite stolen base totals, he's failed to live up to his expectations. His on base abilities are league average, his defense (at least in CF) is questionable, and his batting practice power has failed to develop into game time power. This isn't to say he's not a useful player, but there are definitely players out there that will be more productive and more efficient.

    As for Ellsbury's peak, you are right that it's possible he may not have peaked. Keep in mind that players typically peak between the ages of 25-29. If Jake were to follow a typical career path, he'd only have another two seasons left of his prime. Also, speed (especially in terms of SBs) tends to be one of the first skills to decline. If Ellsbury doesn't develop another offensive skill, he'll be hard pressed to find a regular starting job once he hits 32 or 33.

    As for Upton, I read the Marchman article. (Very solid article by the way.) While I agree with him to an extent, I'm not sure this includes players with elite level skill sets. It's too early to say whether or not Upton will ever develop into a HOF quality player, but the potential is certainly there. I must admit that I am concerned (as was Josh per his article) about Upton's strikeout rate. There is some cause for hope as Upton's swinging strike rate actually dropped 3.6% in two years. If he was to keep this up, it's possible he could drop his strikeout rate to a more manageable 22-25%, thus making him more likely to hit .300.