It's no secret that the Mariners can't hit. While the M's have somehow outscored five other teams thus far, they're last in the American League in wRC+, marking the third straight season they've brought up the rear in that category. Just as troubling, the team hasn't rostered a middle of the order type of bat in a number of years. The Mariners haven't had a player post a wRC+ over 125 since 2009 or over 150 since Edgar Martinez did it all the way back in 2001. The M's have collectively struggled at the plate since the end of the first Griffey era, and between the poor seasons from a number of young players and the lack of hitting talent in the minors, it's an issue without an immediate solution. Not surprisingly, when the Arizona Diamondbacks placed talented right fielder Justin Upton on the block, Mariner fans took notice.
Fans are right to get excited. Upton is only twenty-four and already has 98 homers, 16 career fWAR, and a borderline MVP season on his resume. He has as much raw power as anyone in the game (those who watched him face Jason Vargas won't disagree,) plays good defense, and can steal bases. He would instantly become the best position player on the team and could wield the most potent bat the Mariners have had since Edgar. Upton is undoubtedly an alluring trade target and, as he's only owed $40 million through 2015, an affordable one as well. Still, I think there are a number of reasons why it would be a mistake to root for a Justin Upton acquisition.
First, I'm a bit uneasy about the Diamondbacks attitude towards Upton. I'm far from the biggest fan of clubhouse chemistry and I'll generally take production over professionalism, but it's more than a bit unusual that the D'backs have put their home grown superstar on the block for a second time before his twenty-fifth birthday. He's been called "an enigma" by owner Ken Kendrick and manager Kirk Gibson reportedly isn't the biggest fan of Upton (to say nothing of the Arizona spectators, who have recently taken to booing him.)
To be sure, this could all be a misunderstanding. Perhaps Kendrick and Gibson misspoke or were forced into making comments they later regretted. Every player is theoretically available and it's possible that the D'backs are simply a little more open to shopping their best players than most clubs. Still, this is a strange situation.
From a distance, it seems bizarre that an entire city is fed up with a player like Justin Upton. He's young, gifted, and has never been linked with nefarious activities. Most franchises would trip all over themselves to have a player with that kind of profile. But we also can't rule out the possibility that Upton is an infectious slacker only scratching the surface of his potential. I have my doubts about that description, but any potential trade partner has to at least consider that there may be some #want issues with Upton and adjust their valuation accordingly.
Second, despite all of the hype that has surrounded Upton since he was drafted, it's important to realize that his major league track record isn't quite as stellar as his reputation. Clearly, he's a good player, for all the reasons mentioned above. But there are also some dings in his game. Poor 2010 and 2012 campaigns suggest inconsistency, and even if injuries are to blame, it then becomes fair to question his durability. He's only played 140 games once in his career and while he's on track to play a full season this year, a lingering shoulder problem has again raised concerns about Upton's history with injuries.
More troubling is his performance away from Chase Field. The D'backs play in one of the friendliest stadiums in the league, and Upton has taken advantage of the home cooking, hitting sixty homers and posting a .302/.385/.539 line in Phoenix. Away from the desert though, Upton's numbers are disturbingly mediocre: his slash stats drop to .251/.328/.417, which is actually a below league average line (94 wRC+.) Players do generally perform better at home than on the road (factoring in all variables) but Upton's away performance is a red flag.
Most glaring is his drop in power. Most of Upton's home runs are hit to left or left center, a notoriously difficult place to hit for power in Safeco Field. Shifting from homer happy Chase Field and the weaker league to Safeco would neuter a lot of Upton's offensive value. I don't want to sell Upton short: he's still very young and there remains a decent chance he emerges as a perennial MVP candidate. But even if he develops his game over the next few years, something injuries and other factors may prevent from happening, there's a decent chance Safeco masks any improvement, a la Adrian Beltre. And if Upton has peaked, his statistics while playing in Safeco Field might not look nearly as glamorous as they do right now.
Third, an Upton deal doesn't really fit with the Mariners timeline for contention. The three additional years remaining on his contract nominally provide the Mariners a fairly long window to build around Upton, but the M's are as far away from competing as any team in the American League. Realistically, they'd have to figure out a way to win by 2014 when Felix Hernandez's contract expires, and that's a daunting task even before considering the value Seattle would have to surrender to acquire Upton's services.
Even with a peak version Upton, bounceback years from guys like Dustin Ackley, and continued excellence from Hernandez, it would be optimistic to project the Mariners to win much more than eighty games in 2013 or 2014. They'd need to add more talent via free agency (money that the organization might not make available after paying Upton) or hit big on whatever prospects are left in the system after the trade. Simply put, the Mariners would need to have a lot of things go right with their current crop of players to win by 2014. And though the M's could always try to sign Upton to an extension after a trade, he probably won't be willing to turn down an opportunity to hit free agency as a twenty-seven year old, where he could earn a nine figure payday.
Fourth, regardless of timing, attitude problems, or underwhelming road numbers, Upton's overall body of work, age, and contract make him one of the most valuable commodities in the game. Particularly in a season with a dearth of big bats available at the deadline, Upton's value is sky high and any team acquiring him will have to pay Arizona a king's ransom. For the Mariners, that probably means parting with Taijuan Walker. And while there are a number of variables that make forecasting either player a cumbersome task, you'd have to be pretty conservative with Walker's projection (or aggressive with Upton's) to value his six years of team service lower than Justin's three and a half.
To me, Walker is too steep a price to pay. Despite being only nineteen, and one of the younger players in all of double A, Walker already has two excellent pitches. His fastball sits in the mid-nineties but his best offering might be a power curve that some evaluators believe has the potential to turn into a plus-plus delivery. He's also been impressive statistically. His ERA isn't anything special, but he's posting a 3.56 FIP and a strike out rate over nine, outstanding numbers for a teenager. Just for the sake of perspective, Walker has the highest k/9 ratio of any teenager in the Southern League since Edwin Jackson's 9.5 mark nine years ago.
Walker is also highly regarded in prospecting circles, as evidenced by his Baseball America's most recent top prospect compilation. Walker was listed as the fourth best prospect in all of baseball and the second best pitcher behind only Dylan Bundy. Pitching prospects are never a sure thing, but Walker has the rare opportunity to turn into an ace, and has a ceiling that even Upton would struggle to reach.
If the Diamondbacks were willing to part with Upton without requiring an elite prospect, the M's should still be interested. I have predicated this post on the assumption that Arizona will only deal their right fielder for an overwhelming package, one I think the Mariners would be wise to avoid paying. Upton is a tremendous talent, but a poor fit for the M's. His offensive profile is a bad match for the park. His contract, while not large for a player of his caliber, doesn't make sense for the way the club is currently constructed. And, of course, the price will be very high.
This is all hypothetical. I have no intel that suggests Jack Z has even called the D'backs asking about Upton. This is simply meant to head off any momentum surrounding a potential deal. Upton's a great player and Arizona may well be crazy for trading him, but I can't help but think the M's would be best served to let some other team restock Arizona's farm system. Upton is simply too risky in this environment to be worth the package the Diamondbacks will seek.