When I saw the news that the Pirates have engaged in discussions for Arizona’s Justin Upton, I was excited as anybody. This was Justin Upton, the 24-year-old phenom that blasts towering home runs and finished 4th in MVP races. I imagined Upton as a superstar cleanup hitter behind Andrew McCutchen as they led Pittsburgh from ignominy to a pennant.
But not everything is as it seems. When looking at a trade rumor, sometimes perception is not reality. Looking at the facts now, I don’t think the Pirates should trade for Justin Upton.
1. Upton’s offensive numbers are helped substantially by playing in Phoenix.
Two graphs demonstrate this pretty well. The first shows Upton’s 2011 numbers at Chase Field, and on the road:
Oh. Well, that’s not really fair. I mean, that’s one season. Let’s take a larger sample size of Upton’s 660-game career:
Well then. Yes, Justin Upton hits the ball far. And many of those no-doubt home runs in Arizona you see on SportsCenter would be no-doubt home runs in Pittsburgh.
But Chase Field is a very hitter-friendly park, largely because the desert air allows the ball to travel further, especially when the retractable roof is open. The average player’s OPS is 28 points better at home. A 180-point difference is a major red flag to me regarding Upton.
And the dead-pull hitter Upton has become does not make him the best candidate to keep up his power numbers with PNC Park’s massive left field.
Here is a brief list of players that have posted a better road OPS than Upton over the last three seasons: Alex Gordon, Josh Willingham, Shin-Soo Choo, Alfonso Soriano, Marlon Byrd. Those are all good hitters, but hardly superstars.
2. Which Justin Upton would the Pirates get?
Last year, Upton was a bona fide MVP choice: a six-WAR player, a 30-homer hitter, owner of an .898 OPS and a terrific fielder and baserunner.
But this season is different. He only has seven homers at the break and a .755 OPS. Despite the fact that he has a higher BABIP (meaning more balls dropping in for hits), Upton’s batting average is down.
For my money, the biggest factor is that Upton is not hitting the ball as hard. Last season, he averaged 0.82 groundballs for every fly ball, and this season he is averaging 1.39 groundballs for every flyball. There is speculation that Upton has lingering shoulder problems. But whatever the reason, it’s obvious that Upton killing more worms with his grounders than he did last year.
3. His contract is significant to a small-market team.
When Upton is putting up MVP-like numbers as he did last year, money is almost no object. But if he continues his current groundball troubles, the contract becomes important. He is signed through 2015, and the last two years of the contract come up big. Upton will be owed $14.25 million in 2014, then $14.5 million in 2015.
That may be a drop in the bucket for the Yankees or the Rangers, but it is of utmost importance to the Pirates. Upton’s contract could take up more than 20 percent of the payroll, all for a player who seems to be a bit of an enigma.
Theoretically, the Pirates would be dumping a truckload of top prospects onto Kevin Towers’ yard, and then will have to get another truck full of Upton’s money for the rest of his contract. Instead of dealing away prospects for that scenario, the Pirates should use that money to try to make a splash on a free agent this offseason, or commit some cash for a Neil Walker or James McDonald extension. That way, the Pirates don’t have to give up…
4. The Diamondbacks will want far too much.
… Starling Marte, Jameson Taillon, Rudy Owens and Robbie Grossman. That’s who Tim Williams of Pirates Prospects thinks will have to be traded by the Pirates to get Upton. All are former or current Top 100 overall prospects, or in Owens’ case, a pitcher with a lot of value as a future rotation guy. These talented, cost-controlled young players are as good as gold for a small-market team looking to compete in these next few years. Arizona will likely ask for all of them, and they are in no hurry to deal Upton. If Towers doesn’t get overwhelmed by a trade offer, I think he would be just as happy to keep Upton around through 2015.
Instead of giving up the moon and the stars for one player, the Pirates should make a smaller splash: outfielders like Carlos Quentin, Shane Victorino, Josh Willingham or David DeJesus could make an impact on the 2012 Pirates team, and be had for much less.
Don’t commit to a player that derives most of his value from hitting in Arizona, a player that could prevent future free agency signings, a player who may not keep up his MVP status from last year. Justin Upton is a very good player, but there are far better trade options out there for Neal Huntington and the Pirates.