For a month with bundles of baseball news coming few and far between, the Justin Upton saga has been a constant gift for Hot Stove banter. On Thursday, we learned that the right fielder rejected a trade to the Mariners, and the Dallas Morning News' Evan Grant reported that the Rangers are "moving on" in their off-season plans. According to USA Today's Bob Nightengale, Arizona attempted to engage Texas one last time prior to the rejected Seattle deal, but the Rangers found the asking price "too steep."
From the outset, Upton's reluctance to leave the desert for the wetlands looks like a positive non-move for the Mariners. General manager Jack Zduriencik reportedly offered a king's ransom for the inconsistent outfielder, putting together a package of second baseman Nick Franklin, left-handed pitcher Charlie Furbush, right-handed reliever Stephen Pryor, and one of righty Taijuan Walker or lefties Danny Hultzen and James Paxton. Furbush had a breakout campaign in 2012 after the Mariners moved him to the bullpen, and Pryor also got his first taste of big-league life. However, the biggest point of interest is Zduriencik's willingness to part with two of his top five prospects for Upton.
Baseball America ranked Franklin Seattle's fifth-best prospect and Walker, Hultzen, and Paxton its second- through fourth-best prospects, respectively. To get quality talent, you must give up quality talent, but the price the Mariners were apparently willing to pay for Upton is a bit too rich.
Unlike most prospect-heavy trades, which tend to involve lower-level talent, this deal would have involved only prospects who have played at least one full season at Double-A ball or above. When young players reach this level, they have typically separated themselves from the competition and proven that they will probably be able to help a ballclub in the near future. Walker and Paxton spent 2012 at Double-A, while Hultzen and Franklin both split time between Double- and Triple-A. All four could have provided Arizona with an impressive haul.
Franklin, who was the cert to be dealt, pummeled Double-A pitching in a return engagement, racking up a .322/.394/.502 line in 57 games before he was promoted to Triple-A. The promotion was not particularly kind to Franklin, as he hit .243/.310/.416 the rest of the way, but the 21-year-old has plenty of time to make adjustments. He will definitely need to improve upon his .190/.269/.284 line against left-handed pitchers to gain a starting spot in the lineup. Franklin is a solid defender around the keystone, and while he doesn't have a standout tool, the switch-hitter is a solid, average player.
Of the trio of pitchers Towers would have been able to choose from, Hultzen is the closest to the majors. The 2011 first-rounder dominated Double-A by racking up 79 strikeouts in 75⅓ innings whlie allowing just 38 hits, but, like Franklin, he found trouble at Triple-A, picking up 57 whiffs in just 48⅔ innings but allowing 49 hits and issuing 43 walks along the way. Part of Hultzen's struggles can be attributed to wearing out at the end of the season, especially since it was his first year in pro ball. The 23-year-old southpaw still has a nice three-pitch arsenal of a fastball, changeup, and slider, and he should be able to handle a No. 3 starter's workload.
Paxton is probably the next-closest of the trio to the majors, and he handled his return to Double-A well, going 106⅓ innings while picking up 110 strikeouts. The 24-year-old's big problem, though, is his command. He walked 54 batters in 2012 and has a messy delivery that could hinder his ability to stay in the rotation. Paxton does, however, have a plus fastball and curveball that could either play up in the bullpen or else slide into a back-of-the-rotation role.
Walker could have been a true steal for Arizona, as the righty has ace potential thanks to a plus fastball, curveball, and cutter. The 2010 first-rounder skipped High-A, likely because the Cal League is famously hitter-friendly, and instead jumped to Double-A, where he struck out 118 batters in 126⅔ innings. However, Walker lived up to his name as he struggled with his command and issued 50 walks. Just 20 years old, Walker needs time to refine his command, delivery, and finish, but he has the highest ceiling in the Mariners' system and could provide a knockout complement to Felix Hernandez at the top of the rotation in the coming years.
Which brings us to the big issue: The Mariners are not going to contend in 2013, and they probably won't be lighting up the league in 2014. Why pay such a high price for a negligible return in the standings? Why trade for Upton now? The 25-year-old's career has been a roller coaster: up one year, down the next; high-octane lumber one year, mediocre pop for a corner outfielder the next. Take a look:
If Upton stays true to his trends, he'll hit about .295/.368/.531 in 2013, but banking on trends alone is a fool's game. Upton is only 25 years old and could very well break out as a superstar as he nears his prime, but will he be able to hit like a superstar on a consistent basis? More importantly, would he be able to do it outside of his home ballpark? Chase Field is a notorious bandbox, with a three-year park factor of 106 (100 is a neutral ballpark for pitchers and hitters). Upton's career home-away splits don't paint a pretty picture:
Upton loses a considerable amount of pop when he's on the road, and fewer of the pitches he makes contact with find holes in the opposition's defense. If Upton were to call Safeco Field his home, he would be surrounded by the absolute worst hitter's park in baseball; Safeco's three-year park factor is 90. That number will surely change with the stadium's new dimensions, but it is highly unlikely that it'll be a radical transformation. The park will probably still be unfriendly to right-handed power, which would not be happy news to the righty Upton.
Seattle certainly would have reaped numerous rewards for having Upton in the lineup, including the ability to move Michael Saunders out of a starting spot. The Mariners would have gained a known commodity for unproven prospects and a pair of relievers. Still, Zduriencik would have been mortgaging a very bright future with players on the brink of major-league careers for an outfielder who offers no guarantees of superstardom.
Thanks to Upton's decision, Seattle retains the enviable opportunity to rebuild its team around potential franchise cornerstones.