What Would Justin Upton Cost the Pirates?
It seems like Justin Upton has been on the block forever. There has been talk that Arizona could deal him in each of the last two off-seasons. There was also talk during the year that Upton could be on the block, and the Pittsburgh Pirates were one of the teams linked to him. Up until now it didn’t seem like that talk was very serious. The whole situation seemed confusing. Arizona wanted immediate help, but at the same time they were willing to deal a top young player who is under control for several years. That was conflicting, and raised questions about red flags. It also raised questions about how serious the trade rumors were, and how likely it would be for Arizona to deal Upton.
Yesterday the Upton rumors took a big step toward reality. Arizona agreed to a deal to send Upton to the Seattle Mariners. The only problem was that Seattle was on Upton’s no-trade list, and the outfielder rejected the trade. Clearly we’re beyond the point where we can question whether Arizona would actually deal Upton. As a result, we also have a better idea of what it would cost to land Upton.
Seattle was willing to part with Taijuan Walker, Nick Franklin, Charlie Furbush, and Stephen Pryor to land Upton. To get an idea of that return, let’s look at comparable pieces from the Pirates’ system.
Baseball America graded Walker as the fourth best prospect in the game and the number two pitching prospect in their mid-season rankings. In that same list, Gerrit Cole ranked sixth, and Jameson Taillon ranked 15th. The comparable here would be Cole. I think Pirates fans would rather trade Taillon, since Cole is closer to the majors. If we’re comparing the two to Walker, Cole is closer.
In the same Baseball America ranking, Franklin was rated the number 35 prospect. The Pirates don’t have a shortstop prospect who is comparable to Franklin. Alen Hanson was rated 40th in BA’s mid-season rankings, so from a value standpoint he could be a match. However, Arizona is looking for immediate help, and there are concerns about Hanson’s ability to stick at short in the long-term. Franklin would provide that immediate help, which would make him a better option than Hanson.
Back at the deadline, Starling Marte looked like he would need to be a key piece for any Upton deal. Marte was rated 36th in that mid-season report, so he’d be a match with Franklin from a value standpoint and would also provide immediate help. Marte has since moved up to the majors, and handled himself well in his brief appearance. That probably elevates his value, to the point where the Pirates would be better off keeping him and seeing what they have, rather than dealing him as a piece for Upton.
Hanson would be the comparable here, but he might not be what Arizona was looking for.
Furbush had a big season in 2012, posting a 2.72 ERA in 46.1 innings in relief, with a dominant 10.3 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, and an 0.6 HR/9 ratio. The lefty reliever has five years of control remaining. A comparable would be Tony Watson. The Pirates’ left-hander had a 3.38 ERA in 53.1 innings in 2012, with an 8.9 K/9, a 3.9 BB/9, and an 0.8 HR/9 ratio. Watson also has five years of control remaining.
Furbush was a bit more dominant, and had better control numbers. Looking at the advanced numbers, Furbush seems more likely to repeat his ERA. He had a 3.21 xFIP, while Watson had a 4.00. That’s probably because Furbush strikes out almost one and a half batters more per nine innings, while walking almost one batter less per nine than Watson.
These two are comparable from the standpoint that they’re both lefty relievers with five years of control remaining, good strikeout ratios, and somewhat medium-high walk rates. Furbush would get the edge here in value.
Pryor had a decent season in 2012, with a 3.91 ERA in 23 innings, along with a 10.6 K/9, a 5.1 BB/9, and a 2.0 HR/9 ratio. When you normalize the HR/FB rate, he had a 4.23 xFIP. The big appeal here is that he averaged 96 MPH with his fastball, although the control issues are a concern. Pryor has six years of control remaining.
The Pirates don’t have a comparable to Pryor on the major league roster when you consider his years of control. Minor league comparables would be Bryan Morris or Vic Black. Black seems to match up well with Pryor, since both strike out a lot of batters, but both also deal with control issues leading to high walk rates. They also both usually sit in the 96 MPH range. If we ignore that Black hasn’t played in the majors, while Pryor has, then they’d be comparable.
The comparable return, from a value standpoint, would be Gerrit Cole, Alen Hanson, Tony Watson, and Vic Black. Even then, Seattle’s deal might be a bit better. It’s impossible to do an exact match of four players from one team with four players from another team, so I wouldn’t say the difference here is significant.
The problem is that the deal doesn’t fit what Arizona wants. The key issue is Hanson. Arizona wants a major-league ready shortstop. Hanson is a few years away, and might not stick at short. So while the deal matches up from a value standpoint, it doesn’t match up from a needs standpoint. In order to meet Arizona’s need for immediate help, you’re probably talking about dealing Marte. That fills the need for immediate help, but doesn’t fill a team need, since Arizona has a lot of outfield options.
My stance on trading for Upton is about the same as it was over the summer. I don’t think the deal makes sense for a team like the Pirates. At this point, Upton is under control for three years, making $38.5 M. The Pirates would have to give up six and a half years of Gerrit Cole, six years of Marte, five years of Watson, and six and a half years of Black. Not all of those prospects will live up to their potential, but that doesn’t mean they’ll all fail. In the long-term, the Pirates would be better off going with their prospects, rather than dealing them away for one piece. I could envision a scenario where having Cole and Marte is considerably better than having Upton, and I don’t think we’re far away from that becoming a reality.
The only way the deal would make sense for the Pirates is if you started lowering the price by including guys further away from the majors (like Taillon and Hanson). That’s not realistic, since Arizona is looking for guys close to the majors, and since those guys don’t match the value of the failed Arizona/Seattle trade. The Pirates do have what it would take to land Upton, but it wouldn’t be a smart long-term move to make.