Justin Upton has spent his entire career as the recipient of heavy attention. Most of the time, it’s been because he’s as talented a player as can be found in baseball, but lately he’s had to deal with rumors of work ethic absence as he continues to struggle in finding consistency. Rumored to be on the trading block since last summer after a slow start, Upton has finally found a new home in Atlanta as he joins his brother B.J. as a member of the Braves.
Upton will head to Atlanta with infielder Chris Johnson, while the Diamondbacks will pick up the versatile Martin Prado, starting pitcher Randall Delgado, minor league shortstop Nick Ahmed, pitching prospect Zeke Spruill, and first base prospect Brandon Drury. Upton will make $38.5 million over the next three seasons with the Braves, and he’s still only 25 until August. This is a pretty big deal, certainly the most important we’ve seen in a while, and it makes the Braves’ lineup much more dangerous than before. With Jason Heyward back on track, B.J. Upton on board thanks to a free agent contract, and his brother Justin newly acquired, Atlanta’s lineup packs more honest punch than it has in a while.
It should be noted that the .341 wOBA Upton posted last season was the worst of his career as a regular, and it happened coming off a near-MVP campaign. Upton hit just .280/.355/.430 with 17 homers in 2012, though most indications show he remains a good defensive outfielder and a smart base runner. He also managed to keep his walk rate at a very respectable 10%, so his eye hasn’t begun to wander or anything. Upton did manage to rebound a bit after the All-Star break, hitting .287/.357/.460 and bashing 10 of his home runs. The end result was a season valued at 2.5 WAR by FanGraphs; while a far cry from what Upton managed in 2009 and 2011, that’s not exactly the worst nadir a player can endure. Given his age, talent, and what could be a renewed passion for the game by playing with his brother, Upton is a very good bet to return to his status as one of the game’s best in 2013.
As much as I like Upton and believe in the vast upside he’s already shown, I can’t go without mentioning his struggles on the road. Over the course of his career, he’s been a .937 OPS hitter in Arizona and just a .731 OPS hitter everywhere else. This tendency was even more pronounced in 2012 (.924 at home, .670 on the road), and the move to Atlanta means he’ll be stuck playing most of his games in a more difficult hitter’s park. Given Upton’s strong-to-incredible physical game, this may not be an issue, but it could be difficult for him to have another 2011 right away.
So what about the rest of the players in this deal? Chris Johnson never takes a pitch and offers little but sporadic power off the bench. He can’t handle a glove either, so he’s not an important inclusion for the Diamondbacks. As far as what Arizona’s getting, Martin Prado is easily the most recognizable name on the list. Prado is a very good player who FanGraphs had at 5.9 WAR last season thanks to outstanding defense, though UZR hasn’t always found him so enchanting. Traditionally, Prado has been a solid infielder who can hit for average, plug the gaps, and add value to any team’s infield. Prado could become a free agent as early as next season.
Randall Delgado spent a number of years on prospect lists before making some appearances for the Braves over the last two seasons. Delgado’s walk rates haven’t been ideal, and he looks much more like a guy with a number three or four upside than a future ace. Delgado won’t turn 23 for another couple of weeks, so there’s still a chance he can mature into a valuable piece for Arizona. Zeke Spruill is a 22-year-old minor leaguer who has been successful with low strikeout rates, while Nick Ahmed has the ability to play short defensively, speed, and little in the way of power. Brandon Drury will turn 21 this summer and still has yet to do much with the bat above rookie ball.
I like this chance taken by the Braves. Atlanta obviously has a team that will be in contention for the foreseeable future, and Upton could be the star player to put them over the top. None of the young players surrendered have ceilings so high that this deal wasn’t worth it, and Martin Prado will be due for a free agent payday after 2013 when he’s already 30. Meanwhile, Upton remains only 25 years old, is under contract for three more seasons, and has already shown he can produce at a startling pace when everything is right. I think the Braves were right to pounce on Arizona’s reluctance with their high profile outfielder, and it could pay dividends right away.