On Thursday evening news broke that the Seattle Mariners and Arizona Diamondbacks had agreed to a trade that would have sent young up-and-coming outfielder Justin Upton to Seattle in exchange for a package of young talent: top starting pitching prospect Taijuan Walker, middle infield prospect Nick Franklin, and big league relievers Charlie Furbush and Stephen Pryor. However, GM Jack Zduriencik didn't get his middle of the order bat as Upton used his limited no-trade clause to nix the deal. Here is MLB Trade Rumors' rundown from the day.
Early reports indicated that the Mariners were set to trade Franklin, Furbush, Pryor or a similar player along with one of their "big three" pitching prospects Walker, Danny Hultzen, or James Paxton. At that point, any analysis of the deal would have been lacking as Walker has separated himself over the past year as the only one with a real shot at becoming a number-one pitcher. Hultzen and Paxton are a couple of the best pitching prospects in the game but are most often categorized as mid-rotation non-aces. Once reports gained confidence in the inclusion of Walker and Pryor, we began to get a better idea of how the Mariners and Diamondbacks value Upton.
Walker is one of the most highly regarding pitching prospects in all of baseball. He already has a successful high-minors campaign under his belt despite spending most of last season as a teenager. He's ultra-athletic, throws a blistering fastball, and has a curveball that flashes as an out pitch along with a changeup well on its way to being useful. Franklin might be Seattle's second-best position prospect but has lost some luster over the past two seasons and is now viewed as more of a low-ceiling/high-floor second baseman than the Mariners shortstop of the future. He has already hit in the high-minors and will be just 22 next season, so he holds on to plenty of value despite more and more analysts downgrading his defensive ability. Furbush, 27 in April, broke out as a reliever in 2012 and can be viewed as a fairly bankable late inning option from the left side. Pryor, 23, has limited upside but throws the type of heat that will keep him relevant as long as he can find some control.
Upton, still just 25, has seen his power output seesaw over his first five big league seasons, causing his year-to-year production to range from All-Star to merely "solid"-- the latter being a disappointment from a former number-one pick with tremendous physical gifts. Upton is signed long-term, earning $9.75m in 2013, $14.25m in 2014, and $14.5m in 2015. Those figures represent a team-friendly deal based on his track record, but could swing wildly in the team's favor should he take the next step towards stardom.
THE NO-TRADE CLAUSE
Upton's contract allows him to place four teams on his no-trade list. That these four teams have changed every year indicates that Upton and his agent -- like most players and their agents -- are using the clause as a negotiation tool. The idea is that Upton could choose to waive his no-trade clause in exchange for contract modifications. This year, the Mariners are joined by the Toronto Blue Jays, Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs. The Mariners were not one of the clubs on the list in 2012 or 2011, but they were on the list in 2010, the last time they appeared to be going for it.
We might have expected Upton's use of the no-trade clause to be followed by a negotiation that resulted in the Mariners sending something shiny his way in exchange for his approval-- an option year or two, a guaranteed year or two, an opt-out clause, gold-plated jet skis, exotic pets ... who knows. Instead, no negotiations have been reported since Thursday and the deal appears to be dead.
Upton could simply be holding out for a better situation. He knows the Diamondbacks are trying to trade him so maybe he's hoping they'll send him to a winning franchise like the Texas Rangers or Atlanta Braves. If that's the case and an alternative trade doesn't materialize, it's possible that Upton could approach Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers later this offseason and ask him to get the Mariners back on the line, assuming that anywhere is better than Arizona at this point.
That might not be the case. There are reasons to think that Upton and his agent simply don't want Seattle. Upton will be just entering his prime years once he hits free agency, giving him a unique opportunity to sign for an obscene amount of money. Playing the next three seasons in a low-profile market at a notoriously pitcher-friendly ballpark as part of a notoriously anemic lineup probably isn't a great way to maximize that opportunity.
Or Upton just dislikes Seattle as a city. Maybe he doesn't like the weather or the isolation. It seems unlikely that Upton would put such things above the business of baseball at this point in his career, but it would be well within his rights to want to avoid the Pacific Northwest.
The Mariners weren't on my mind Thursday. I had a busy day at work and was heading to the Portland Trailblazers-Miami Heat matchup at the Rose Garden that evening*. Working myself into basketball mode, I hadn't thought to check in on Twitter or any other outlets for Mariner news, so I was surprised when a friend called to ask what I thought about the Upton trade.
*Great down-to-the-wire win for the Blazers, easily the loudest I've ever heard the Rose Garden, and King Felix was in attendance. Great night!
Once he filled me in my reaction was something along the lines of a slow head nod. It seemed like a fair swap. I didn't like the idea of losing Walker's upside but I told my friend that if Hultzen or Paxton had been in his place I probably wouldn't think twice before pulling the trigger, so it made sense to me. The Mariners would have been gambling with Upton's consistency and apparent makeup issues, but over the past few years I've evolved from a prospect hoarder to someone who is fine using prospects -- particularly pitching prospects -- as currency. Prospects break your heart. It didn't seem like a win for the Mariners, but neither did it seem like a loss.
My opinion hasn't changed much now that I've had some time to think about it. It seems that many believe the Mariners would have been overpaying, but I would have been fine with the Mariners cashing in Walker and skipping out on the risks associated with all young pitchers, while Franklin, Furbush and Pryor don't seem to have enough upside to cause future heartbreak.
That's not to say the Mariners might do better elsewhere. That's not to say signing Nick Swisher to a similar contract and keeping the prospects might have been a safer way to go. That's just to say that if it happened, I could have gotten behind it. Having Upton in the lineup with Kendrys Morales and Jesus Montero would have been awfully exciting.
But for now it doesn't matter. What's next? Michael Bourn? A different trade target? Pack it in til next year?
Further reading: Justin Upton's Trade Value by Dave Cameron | FanGraphs