First Pitch: Why I Wouldn’t Trade For Justin Upton

A few weeks ago I was talking with one of my fantasy baseball buds about a trade idea that seemed like it had no chance of taking place. He mentioned that he was listening to MLB on XM, and they were discussing how Justin Upton could be dealt, and how he’d be a good fit for the Pittsburgh Pirates. So when the rumors came out yesterday that the Pirates were interested in Upton, I already had been thinking about the subject for a few weeks.

First of all, the Pirates getting Justin Upton in the short-term would be huge. There’s no denying that. Prior to the season, Keith Law named Andrew McCutchen the second best player under the age of 25. Number one was Upton. The rankings may have changed with guys like Bryce Harper and Mike Trout moving up, or possibly Upton moving down, but the overall impact would be the same. Having two of the top young players in the game on the same team would be huge. And they’d be on the same team through the 2015 season.

You can dream on Andrew McCutchen and Justin Upton playing together. Add in Pedro Alvarez, and that’s a dangerous middle of the order for the next several years. Throw in whatever prospects are remaining after an Upton deal, and you’ve got a young team that can contend not just this year, but for the next few years.

But I think in the middle of that dreaming, people are overlooking a few key things.

First, I don’t think people are giving enough thought as to how much Upton would cost. In my look at Upton’s trade value, I noted that it would probably take Jameson Taillon, Starling Marte, one of the Indianapolis left-handers, and a Grade B hitter like Robbie Grossman or Gregory Polanco.

A lot of the arguments I saw were based around “Justin Upton is better than Starling Marte”. If it was a 1-for-1 swap, then those arguments would be valid. But it’s not just Upton for Marte. It’s Marte, plus one of the top pitching prospects in the game, plus a major-league ready starter, plus a borderline top 100 outfield prospect. Just to hammer that point home, let’s look at what the Pirates would have to give up.

First, there’s Jameson Taillon. Pitching prospects with number one upside are rare. I think Pirates fans have forgotten about this because they’ve managed to get so many of them over the last three years. In 2009, the only hope for the Pirates to eventually get an ace was for one of the 2009 prep pitchers to break out in to a stud pitcher. Three years later and the Pirates have three potential aces in the system, and one potentially on the way if they sign Mark Appel.

Just because you have multiple ace prospects, doesn’t mean you’re going to have multiple aces. The Pirates have four who could have that upside, with Cole and Taillon being the best bets. That means they’d be fortunate to have two of those pitchers reach their potential. The Pirates have a lot of top of the rotation prospects. But that doesn’t mean some of those guys should be trade bait. Those are very rare pieces to have. Taillon is a guy who could be up in 2014, and pitching for the Pirates for six and a half years or more, with the first three and a half years coming at league minimum salary. That’s huge.

Then there’s Marte. We’ve always been higher on Marte than anyone else. Prior to the 2011 season we had Marte as the number two prospect in the system, focusing on the talent and ignoring the strikeout numbers and the lack of power. Earlier today I was asked about Marte, and I responded with my opinion that I feel Marte could end up being close in value to McCutchen and Upton. I was told that was a bold statement, but why can’t he?

In Andrew McCutchen’s final year in Triple-A, he hit for a .303/.361/.493 line in 201 at-bats. Starling Marte currently has a .290/.350/.492 line in 331 at-bats in Triple-A. One difference is that Marte puts up higher strikeout numbers and lower walk numbers. But those numbers aren’t out of control. Marte has a 22% strikeout rate this year, and a 6% walk rate. McCutchen’s walk rate was 7.7% in his final year.

I also saw several people point out that Justin Upton was an MVP candidate in the majors at the age of 23, while Marte has yet to play a game in the majors at the age of 23. That really doesn’t say anything, other than Justin Upton is very good. Are we supposed to believe that if a player doesn’t come up by the age of 23 and put up an MVP season, he can’t be good? McCutchen came up at 22. Is that extra year the difference?

Marte is an outfielder who is on the verge of being ready for the majors. He’s a guy with a ton of upside, plus he has better defense than McCutchen and Upton. He’s got some real power, and not just the 10-15 home run type you’d expect from a leadoff hitter. He saw a power increase last year, and he’s seen another one this year, with an ISO over .200. And he’s not just a small, skinny hitter. For those that haven’t seen him, he’s ripped. I’ve seen him put up some impressive home runs, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he tops 25 in the majors one day. Add in the years of control, and the cheap price, and he’s a very valuable player for the Pirates.

Then there’s one of the Indianapolis left-handers. Whether that is Rudy Owens, Jeff Locke, or Justin Wilson, all three have value to the Pirates. If Pittsburgh needs second half replacements for Kevin Correia and Erik Bedard, they’ll need to turn to two of those three. Next year Correia and Bedard will be gone, which means two of those three will have to be up. The year after that, A.J. Burnett and Jeff Karstens will be gone.

Other pitchers will emerge through the system, but the Pirates will need depth. And if you’re dealing Taillon and one of the Indianapolis pitchers for Upton, then your 2014 rotation is Gerrit Cole, James McDonald, the remaining two Indianapolis starters, and Kyle McPherson, while hoping that some lower level starters emerge to provide depth. Not to mention, all of those upper level guys have to work out. The way I see it, talking about the pitching depth now is kind of like the talk about the outfield depth pre-season. Everyone wondered what the Pirates would possibly do with Alex Presley and Jose Tabata when Marte came up. Now they’re wondering who will fill the other outfield spot for the long term, even after Marte arrives. Until there’s actually a log jam at the major league level, there’s no such thing as “excess” in the minors.

Finally, there’s an outfielder like Robbie Grossman or Gregory Polanco. The loss of one of these guys wouldn’t be as bad as some of the guys above, although they’d fit the same argument as the pitchers above. The Pirates have two long term outfield spots open. Marte could take one, but who takes the other?

You might have noticed a common theme above. Years of control, and affordability. That’s a big thing people are over-looking here. I’ve seen people say “adding Upton could convince a big free agent to come here”. How are you going to afford a big free agent when you’re eventually paying McCutchen $10 M and Upton $14.5 M? And that’s not counting arbitration raises to James McDonald, Pedro Alvarez, and Neil Walker. The Pirates could raise their payroll, and they should if they continue winning and improving their attendance. But PNC Park limits their payroll ceiling. They’re not going to see three million or more fans a year. PNC Park isn’t that big. So the odds of increasing to the $80-90 M range like Milwaukee are slim. The Pirates are likely to top out in the $70-75 M range, like the Rays.

It might not be what people want to hear, but the Pirates have limits as a small market team. Small market teams can spend more than $50-60 M, but there is a ceiling, even with tons of fan support. And the Pirates would have a hard time putting a team together  under that ceiling if you’ve got McCutchen and Upton combining for $20-25 M a year in their final two years, plus a big free agent ($10-15 M?), plus Pedro Alvarez, James McDonald, and Neil Walker going through arbitration.

The biggest question with Upton is: do the Pirates need him? There is a difference between wants and needs. It’s a difference that a lot of people don’t understand. As it pertains to baseball, a “need” is something you can’t compete without. A “want” is something you could do without, but serves as more of a luxury.

The Pirates are competing right now without Justin Upton. They could use more offense this year, but they could get that offense from Carlos Quentin or Shane Victorino for much, much less. Keep Starling Marte and he might provide that offense. Yeah, Upton is under control through the 2015 season. But do the Pirates “need” Upton to compete in those years? I believe they can compete without him. They’ll be adding Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Starling Marte, Robbie Grossman, and others. Upton is a luxury, and he’d cost the Pirates a ton in prospects.

Last night I wrote about how I look at the Rays as a guide for what the Pirates should do. The Rays don’t make moves like this. They don’t sell multiple prospects for a high-priced major league player. They don’t really sell any prospects. They bring their prospects up, win with young, affordable talent, and when the talent gets close to free agency they either let them walk, or trade them to reload the system, and replace the departing players with new prospects.

And let’s be honest. This won’t end with Upton. In the off-season, people will call for players to be added. How great would it be to add Player A to McCutchen and Upton? Next year at the deadline, if the Pirates are competing, there will be a call to add a piece for the stretch. You know, because a team that wins for the first four months can’t possibly win in the final two months without that extra player. It’s never enough. It’s an endless cycle that confuses “wants” with “needs”.

The Pirates are contending now, and while it would be amazing to see Upton on the team, they could still be legit contenders if they added a much cheaper piece. Down the road they could remain contenders by relying on their prospects from within. Maybe Upton gives them a better chance than Marte. But what if you throw in Taillon and Grossman to join Marte?

Finally, the usual response is “prospects aren’t guarantees”. This is very true. It’s a big reason why the Pirates shouldn’t trade a group of their prospects. You’re reducing the chance of getting help in the future. And let’s not act like major league players are a guarantee. Just look at Upton this year. He’s not exactly putting up an MVP season. Whether that’s a conflict with ownership, concerns with his shoulder, or something else, it shows that year to year major league production isn’t guaranteed. You can’t trade for Upton and then print playoff tickets for 2013-2015. You’re putting all of your eggs in one basket in that scenario. The odds of a prospect failing are bigger than the odds of Upton failing. But the odds of four top prospects all failing to reach their potential isn’t likely. Especially when you’re talking about one of the top pitching prospects in baseball (Taillon), and two players who look major league ready (Marte, Indy left-hander). That increases the odds on the prospect side of this trade.

Those are the odds the Pirates need to take. They can’t afford to focus on one player. They need to build around a group of players. It’s the Rays approach, and the benefit is that they can afford a player struggling (like Desmond Jennings this year), because they’re not just relying on that player. That’s not the case with Upton.

This isn’t a small market move. It’s a move that big market teams make. It’s a move that teams like Boston or New York make, because if they eventually need a player down the line, they don’t have to turn to prospects — they can just turn to the free agent market. That’s not the situation for the Pirates. They need prospects. They need to build with prospects. They need affordable players who are under team control for six years, because while they can increase their payroll, the reality is that their payroll potential has a ceiling. And really, there’s no need to make this move. It’s a luxury, dressed up as a necessity just because people are thinking like a fantasy baseball team and dreaming of the possibilities of Upton and McCutchen together. But the Pirates can win without Upton. Need proof? Check the standings.

Links and Notes

**The Pirates beat the Giants 13-2 to finish the first half 48-37.

**Pirates Notebook: McCutchen, Walker Power Bucs to Strong First Half Finish.

**Prospect Watch: Matt Curry Continues Hitting, Jeff Clement Hits 13th Homer.

**Prospect Notebook: Marte Could be Promoted During Midst of Pennant Race.

**Indianapolis Indians Go Into All-Star Break With A Loss.

**Still No Wins for West Virginia’s Hafner.

**Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon Futures Game Results.

**Andrew McCutchen Calls On Old Coach For Home Run Derby.

**Pirates Have an Easy Second Half Schedule, But Reds Have It Easier.

**Pirates Interested in Justin Upton.

  • This is my view. The team is basically Andrew McCutchen and a good (probably TOO good) pitching staff… The offense desperately needs help and there is very little in the minors that would inspire me to believe it will get better from inside the organization. There is Marte, yes, but he wont be ready this year for sure. And I’m not getting too excited for next year (at least just yet).

    Just think about it this way… If McCutchen slumps badly in the second half, or even plays at a .295 10HR clip for the rest of the year which is more than possible then they’ll probably have a mediocre finish to the season…

    What if the pitching comes back down to Earth again? You can bet Correia will falter again. He ALWAYS does in the second half *one of the worst second half ERA’s in the league since ’07*. Bedard hasn’t played a full season in years and we can already see that he started to trail off… AJ is old too… …….. If the pitching is even average, then they JUST PLAIN DON’T MAKE PLAYOFFS!

    There is no depth… Even with Marte, the team isn’t there. The offense doesn’t match up with the Cards or Reds or any of the teams in the Wild Card race.

    They need to get Upton and take this division!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • I bet that the Upton family skill set, just as it hits peak earlier than most others, also erodes quicker than most others as well. Lets not forget that his brother B.J. Upton was top pick in the nation too for a good reason. Look at him now. Look at the numbers as they worsen each year, and he isn’t even that old.
    This calls for calm insight and logic, not rash emotionalism. I would not mortgage the future for this guy. I think the Diamondbacks GM is seeing the same thing and is smart to be trying to move him now and get some value for him before he crashes.

  • buccotime57
    July 9, 2012 4:05 pm

    Huntington has stuck to his plan since 08..i doubt he will deviate now and trade all the work he has done…just bring marte up i think he could bat .267 uptons average this year…

  • I realize this isn’t a real trade option, but I think a better 1-for-1 trade than marte would be taillon. At least then you’re talking about a superstar pitcher for a superstar hitter. Shifting the balance of your strengths from pitching to hitting a bit. And I would certainly do that trade, but not by a lot. I think if it really takes all 4 of the guys you mentioned, I would much prefer to keep the 4.

  • Great article and i love the salary cap talk with this trade i think it would hurt them in the long run because of that. what do you think they do with hanrahan either at the deadline or in the off season with his arbitration $ going to be extremely high

  • I agree with a lot of the sentiments in this article… it may very well be a bad move for the Pirates. But, just to play devil’s advocate, the Pirates wouldn’t be putting their eggs in one basket with a move like this. To use your Rays-Jennings comparison, if the Pirates had Upton already and he was struggling, they’d probably still be ok because they have Cutch and Pedro. But without Upton, if McCutchen were struggling this year they’d be awful. In other words, our eggs are actually 100% in one basket as it currently stands: the Andrew McCutchen basket. This would actually give us more depth and insurance at the ML level. Of course, in the long term it is a riskier move that focuses on just one guy, but as I’ve pointed out before, prospects have the same chance of turning out like the guys we got for Jason Bay as they do of turning into the Mark Teixeira haul. I still think you have to reverse your perspective and ask yourself what you would do before you say no to a deal: if we already HAD Upton in the middle of a division race and someone offered us Marte, Taillon, Owens and Polanco, would you say yes? I doubt it. How is this any different, other than the fact that players are changing uniforms in this scenario?

    • To the first part of your comment, I agree that the team is relying on McCutchen. That’s part of why I wouldn’t deal for Upton. I’d rather build around McCutchen with a lot of prospects, rather than trading a lot of them away for one player.

      To the second part, the Diamondbacks are actually in the race, and they’re willing to deal Upton. That’s a concern to me, considering the rumors about his health and attitude.

  • Adrian Carnelutti
    July 9, 2012 9:25 am

    Tim, what about the prospects of multi-year extensions for McDonald and
    Karstens to provide experience for the pitching prospects coming up in
    2014 in much the same way that Burnette has helped the pitchers this
    year? I think they could sign reasonably priced contratcs and are both
    are likely to keep pitching at the levels they have this year

  • Marte looks like an NFL safety right now. I can definitely see him hitting 15+ HRs. Too much value for the Bucs to get rid of him at this point.

  • The big question is “Why is Towers shopping Upton?” He’s young, moderately priced and under control for three years. I could see if they couldn’t compete next year but they have nice core with good pitching now and have Bauer and Skaggs beating down the door. They could easily be in the playoffs next year.

    My guess is that he’s a head case similar to his brother and probably is a malcontent now that they’re now winning.

    I hope Huntingon is just doing due diligence to drive up the price for a team like the Reds or Cards to sell the farm to get him.

    • They are only four games out, so they’re still in it this year. It does seem there is something we’re missing here.

    • From what I hear, Upton doesn’t like the GM? Or owner? I don’t care. The offense is Cutch … and that’s all. They need help.

  • HamburgBucco
    July 9, 2012 8:08 am

    Another fantastic article and hopefully one the front office of the Pirates should keep in mind. As a small market team the Pirates just don’t trade for stars, we develop them in our farm system and bring them up when ready.
    It’s not the Pirates’ way to have 3-4 superstars on the team (payroll concerns), but to have a team built around one or two superstars (McCutchen, Alvarez) and supplement those with players from he farm system, journeymen like Sutton or guys acquired through sensible trades. This Pirates team is working well because it’s a team, all players seem to enjoy playing for the Bucs, I don’t see any egos and I see players picking each other up on the field. We are already reasonably good. Imagine how good we could be if Barmes started having an average season instead of a terrible one.
    If Marte came up and chipped in with a few extra base hits. If Bedard and Correia started finding some sort of consistency again after the ASB.
    Let’s not trade away a number of our top prospects, let’s enjoy watching them develop and hopefully join the Pirates in the not too distant future.
    And finally one more thought: I would be very cautious with a player like Upton who is supposed to be the heart and soul of his current team, yet player, club and fans are desperate to trade him away. If anything, this should give another team negotiating with the DBacks a certain degree of leverage. Upton will not play for the DBacks much longer, but if he wants to leave let another team risk their top prospects in a deal, let it not be us!

  • buccotime57
    July 9, 2012 7:51 am

    Another thing that is not being mentioned is that for the last four years the pirates had the “luxury” of a top eight pick in the draft…making the playoffs or being close is going to put us around 20 (hopefully higher) which decreases the odds of acquiring a top baseball prospect…we NEED to keep what we have and trade a B hitter and B pitcher for someone like victorino to help a marte, cutch outfield

    • I forgot to mention that, and it’s a good point. They’re not going to have the chance to draft top guys like Cole, Taillon, or even Appel. I think that’s part of the thought behind dealing them. It’s been so easy to get them the last three years that it seems like it would be easy going forward. But it will be extremely difficult to get an ace if the Pirates are winning and drafting lower in the draft.

  • Dave Parker's Unfiltered Camel
    July 9, 2012 7:37 am

    I agree. The only way that I would trade for Upton is if it involved Hanrahan. The Pirates have plenty of guys that can close. A third team in need of a closer could provide the prospects to AZ. In Pittsburgh the strength of the major league club long term always will be related to the depth of talent in its minor league system. Any trades have to be made with an eye toward keeping that minor league depth intact.

    There is one other issue for me and it is specifically about trading Marte. In my eyes he is the poster child for the Pirates rejuvenated Latin American efforts. Marte is the first major league ready talent since the Bucs reinvested in the region. His success in Pittsburgh could go a long way in strengthening the relationships we have built there, and help the organization procure more top talent from the region. If I’m not mistaken, half of the top six prospects in the Pirate’s minor league system were not drafted. They came from the organization’s efforts in Latin America. Marte succeeding in Pittsburgh would be very good for the Pirates, especially considering the new financial limitations on the organization with regard to the draft.

    • Even if they dealt Hanrahan for prospects, they’d still have to give up a lot. Hanrahan would get a top 50 prospect, and maybe a second piece for the deal. You’re still giving up Taillon, and probably an Indianapolis left-hander.

  • I used to sit in front of a guy at Steelers games who would yell “TOO MUCH” if the D gave up an inch. I’d like to hire him to sit in Huntington’s office to do the same every time the Upton deal comes up.

  • Teacher_in_Tejas
    July 9, 2012 12:51 am

    Tim, just a note, you said the Pirates cannot draw 3 million. Well they can come damn close. Just blue skying here, 35,000 a game would put them at about 2.9 million. I think we both know that isn’t going to happen for various reasons. Even if the team wins the NL Pennant this year, they are not going to sell out Monday evening games against Colorado in April when the Pens are in the playoffs and its 42 degrees out! I can see a world where they average 30,000 for the year realistically.

  • I dont think the Twins would be in on Maholm and not sure how much they would value Doumit. Gorky’s is still hurt I think. I’ve heard talk of 1 Rule 5 pick being included in Hardy deal. I think the BArtlett HArdy market is going to come way down with teams solidifying their MI. I know Twins are looking at relief but with Capps and Nathan how much do you give up for a middle relief guy.
    If im the Bucs I’d do that trade though.

    • true true, they would have the best back end of the bullpen though in the AL with Capps, Nathan, and Hanrahan…Idk though like you said its hard to see if that would happen, Pirates probably not giving up enough in my trade as i look at it now.

  • I like this though process a lot. I was thinking the exact same thing, i would be surprised if the bucs dont try and make a trade for a young front line starter like Garza or Slowley. Whats funny too the Pirates have been linked to with Garza’s and Slowley’s teamates that play SS in Bartlett and Hardy as well… Garza/Bartlett or Slowley/Hardy trade will prob cost us a decent amount Hanrahan, plus a lot of prospects, but would it be worth it?

    • Could a trade of … Slowley and Hardy for Hanrahan, Doumit/Maholm, Justin Wilson, Chase D’ Arnaud, and Gorkys Hernandez??? Is that not enough on are end? or is that too much…I mean Hanrahan does have tremedous Value, i think we all forget how coveted he is, i mean Huntington asked for Neftali Feliz back in a trade for Hanrahan last year when Texas called. So i would think he would still have the same value in his mind.