Sometimes, it’s not hard to know what GM Kevin Towers is thinking. In the most recent offseason, the team was very public about its desires to add a power-hitting outfielder and a front-line starter. In the offseason before that, it was the desire to trade a power-hitting outfielder.

Whether stating your priorities to the world helps potential trade partners come to you, I don’t know. It may be that Towers has undercut his position in the past by speaking publicly, and as Jeff Wiser has eloquently argued, airing one’s dirty laundry is not a very good strategy, especially if done frequently. But it’s the preference that Towers has, and that would be fine – if it worked. The trade of Justin Upton after so much public hand-wringing is an example of it not working.

On January 24, 2013, Towers finally consummated a trade, moving Justin Upton and third baseman Chris Johnson to Atlanta for jack-of-all-trades Martin Prado, Randall Delgado, Zeke Spruill, Nick Ahmed and Brandon Drury.

As a trade, this was not a colossal failure in the way that the Mark Trumbo trade was; trading Trumbo actually reduced the D-backs’ chances of winning in 2014 while giving up on the future of two very real assets, a lose-lose proposition that seemed pretty obvious from the outset. But the Upton trade wasn’t a great one, either, and in hindsight, it looks even worse.

I’m aware that evaluating a trade is not as simple as assigning value to contracts or club control; there are more pieces to this puzzle. For one, a single 3-win player is worth more than three 1-win players, and by quite a bit — because chances are really good that you’ll be able to find two players above replacement level (and if 1-win players are easy to find, you’re looking at 5 wins of value versus 3). That’s not allowed for here, but given that Arizona’s return was more about quantity, that factor does not work in the team’s favor. Another missing piece may be how the team was working with Upton. If that relationship was strained, we can fault the club for that situation, but not for valuing him differently because of it. Finally, while targeting types of players or “grit” hasn’t worked out well for the D-backs, I don’t want to ignore the fact that Towers and Gibson may be right in prioritizing certain personal qualities, even if they’re probably wrong in terms of the extent that they’ve done so.

Still, players don’t get traded — contracts (or team control) get traded. This format works well not just for evaluating the trade, but for evaluating how the value of the trade may have changed in the last year+. Here’s my tabulation of the value of the seven players involved in the Upton deal, followed by my justification, and some final thoughts.

Justin  Upton trade table

First step: who is Justin Upton, anyway? The Towers trade comments stretched on for such a long period of time that one would suspect he had trouble getting what he thought Upton was worth (similar to the team not trading a shortstop in the last offseason). At the time, Upton was one year removed from a 6.1-WAR season with a .898 OPS that had him the 14th-most valuable position player in the game. The D-backs may not have wanted to trade him then, but had he been traded then, his value would have been through the roof.

But that’s besides the point. 2012 saw Upton put up just 2.1 WAR, with subpar defense and a mere .785 OPS — a fairly precipitous drop in a similar stretch of playing time. Upton’s new team had every reason to think they were acquiring a 4-win player, with upside, and on a reasonable contract. At this point, whether Upton could get between $14M and $15M per season is a legitimate question, but a year ago, a win cost about $6M in free agency. A three-year commitment is about perfect from a team perspective, and the total gap between Upton’s expected value over three years (approx. $72M) and the financial commitment ($38.5M) is pretty steep: $33.5M (about 60% of a B.J. Upton contract!). If you consider him to be the 3-win player he ended up being last season, that “hindsight value” declines quite a bit, to about $15.5M.

We need not guess about Chris Johnson’s current value, as the Braves just signed him to a three-year, $23.5M extension. But that was now, and this was then, and at the time of the trade, Johnson was about to make $2.2875M (that extra $500 is important, apparently) in his first of four years of arbitration as a super-two player. League-average hitters are not easy to find, but that’s what Johnson profiled to be, with fringe-average defense. That’s a 1-win player, or thereabouts, and that’s how he was valued by the Astros and D-backs when he was traded six months prior to the Upton trade. If we keep up the $6M/win fiction, that’s a $6M player, one that still had value for two or three years in arbitration, but a player that might have been a non-tender candidate before his final arbitration hearing in the 2015-2016 offseason. I’d estimate his at-the-time value to be in the neighborhood of about $8M ($4M in 2013, etc.).

At the time of the trade, Johnson was expected to split 3B duties with Juan Francisco, and he did — for a short time. But Johnson took off and never looked back, posting an Aaron Hill-ish 127 wRC+ over the course of the season — dragging his career rate from the below-average, sub-100 range to 105. He ended with 2.8 WAR, and a reasonable assumption might be that the 29-year-old is a 2-win player moving forward. For whatever reason, team and player value the free agent season in his recent contract at $9M, and I’m tempted to value his future seasons at that level. Call it $16M in found value for last season, then, and about $9M for the next three: $25M in “hindsight value.”

The headliner on the D-backs side of the trade was Martin Prado, but unless you place a lot of importance on exclusive negotiation rights, it’s hard to assign much value to him. Prado came with only one year of control in his final year of arbitration, earning a $7M salary for 2013 while signing away three free agent years at $11M each. Prado had just posted a career 5.6-win season after a mediocre 2011 (1.3 WAR), and his track record suggested that 3-win performances were a good bet. I happen to think that Prado should get a bump in value for his flexibility (the thing that would make a Chavez/Ross platoon feasible at the moment), so let’s base his at-the-time value on 3.5 WAR. That’s a theoretical savings of $14M for 2013, but I don’t think it makes sense to assign any value to Prado’s free agent seasons when their value were agreed on so soon after the trade — especially since there was no guarantee that Prado would sign such a deal. His $14M at-the-time value sinks to just $7M in “hindsight value,” as Prado’s scuffling start caused him to finish 2013 with just 2.3 WAR (I’m still including a flexibility bonus).

Randall Delgado had just posted a 0.9 WAR season for Atlanta before the trade — but in 92.2 IP, lending a lot of optimism that Delgado was in fact a 2-win pitcher, with upside to be more than that. Let’s split the difference and base his at-the-time value on 2.5 wins ($15M/season). The D-backs got a full 6 years of club control — and following a 40/60/80 rule as a rough guide for arbitration salaries, Delgado may have been worth a whopping $61.5M as an asset. In light of his 0.1-WAR 2013 and recent demotion to the bullpen, however, it may be more reasonable to credit the D-backs for no value in 2013 and base the future years on half-win seasons. Fortunately, the arbitration process flexes with the “change” in value, but Delgado may be no better than a $10M “hindsight value” asset, something that would tick upward if Delgado becomes more valuable than expected in the bullpen (i.e., similar in value to Josh Collmenter‘s 2013).

Valuing the three minor leaguers acquired by Arizona is in some ways the hardest task, but in some ways the easiest. Some great research has been done on the value of prospects, like here and here, but that kind of research has generally used top-100 lists as a starting point, and Zeke Spruill, Nick Ahmed and Brandon Drury have not (yet?) shown up on any such list. For at-the-time value, then, the best method might be to use the sale ofDavid Holmberg as a comparison. Like the three players in this trade, Holmberg is/was a fringy prospect that was definitely perceived as an asset, but who was not put on any top-100 lists. It’s probably true that Spruill, Ahmed and Drury would not have had equal value if control over them were auctioned off — but Holmberg’s $5.5M value is probably fair overall. That’s $16.5M in at-the-time value. Since then, Spruill’s stock has fallen precipitously, Drury’s stock has risen, and while Ahmed hasn’t really grown as a hitter, he may have a solid future as a major league backup infielder. Drury is still not on any prospect list, but let’s bump his value up to $8M or so, keep Ahmed at $5.5M, and dock Spruill’s value to $2M. That’s $15.5M in “hindsight value.”

***

It looks like the Upton move was reasonable when made if you believe that Randall Delgado should have been valued as high as we’ve done so above. The fact that Delgado hasn’t really worked out as a starter is, in large part, why the trade looks much worse in hindsight. But if Julio Teheran was actually an option for Towers instead of Randall Delgado, that’s some serious egg on the face of Towers — not just because he guessed wrong, but because of why he did so. Given that Towers bailed on Trevor Bauer and Tyler Skaggs when they needed fixing, is failing to insist on Julio Teheran another example of Towers thinking that his organization couldn’t “fix” pitchers? If so, that’s a scathing indictment of his own organization and poor judgment to boot.

As we and the D-backs start to think about a rebuilding plan, however, we’re trying to identify trade pieces, and unless the D-backs were to trade Paul Goldschmidt, there are no premium MLB assets in the cupboard with which to obtain premium minor league talent. There are plenty of trade assets, but unless the D-backs can convince another team to take quantity in return for quality, the club is likely to get back more of the same, and to rebuild as a “depth” team instead of as the Washington Nationals or Houston Astros. The Upton trade was a reasonable move that happens to not have worked out particularly well, but, more than anything else, it may have been a wasted opportunity to inject premium talent into the organization.

21 Responses to More than a Year Later, the Justin Upton Trade Looks Worse

  1. Robert Bullington says:

    First off, why would Randall Delgado ever be worth 61.5 million? That is over 6 years control and no scout ever thought he would be more than a #4 or #5 starter. So that kind of skews the truth a little. Plus Chris Johnson had ONE fluke year that no one saw coming, now he’s hitting .235. Prado is the better player over Chris Johnson and Brandon Drury is looking like he may be the real deal. Why don’t we redo this financial value thing after this year and really see how much the Braves have come out on top?

    • Ryan P. Morrison says:

      Don’t really disagree on the #4 label, but how much is a #4 starter worth? Is he worth $12M a year or so (a la Bronson Arroyo)? If so, it’s not hard to get there with three full league-minimum seasons (value: $34.5M) and diminishing returns during the arbitration process (value: $27M). I know it seems crazy. But that’s the difference between a number 4 and a number 6 (Holmberg?) when you’re getting just enough track record to know there’s something there, while still getting the full 6 years.

      Again, I know that seems crazy. I react the same way to the Arroyo contract. But the thing that’s missing from the $61.5M is building in the risk that he was not worth anything near that, which is something we could have done. What value do you think he would have had if he had been a 2-win starter for each of six years, a slightly fringier Wade Miley? Genuinely curious. In terms of how the asset pays off, there’s a much greater range of outcomes for Delgado than the other three major-league players in the deal, just because of all of the team control years.

      Yeah, I’d stick with the at-the-time valuation of Johnson, because I agree with you. But, if we’re doing any of this in hindsight, he did happen to have quite a good year last year, and it wasn’t all BABIP.

      Prado is the better player over Johnson, and as an asset, it was a pretty close call — because Prado was only controlled for one year, and it was the most expensive one.

      Agree on Drury, but no one thinks he’s a top 100 prospect type, as far as I can tell. And for his age, if he were in the top 75-100 bracket, supposedly he’d be worth around $10M. So I thought valuing him (as of right now) at $8M as an asset seemed fair.

      As for doing this again after the season… I’m game!

      • Robert Bullington says:

        I do believe this trade wasn’t a bad one. Especially since it opened up a chance for Parra to play everyday as I believe he is more valuable than Justin Upton. As for Drury, I think he’s another under the radar type of prospect, like Goldschmidt for example. He’s hit wherever he has gone and I believe he’s the type of player who can hit at any level. Now for Arroyo, he’s a lot better of a pitcher than Delgado will ever be, he’s proved that over his last few starts and I think comparing those two is a little off. I see Delgado as a 6th starter or long reliever, he’ll never be better than that. Arroyo is a 3rd or 4th starter while Delgado can barely make the rotation; I just think they are on completely different levels.

        Btw, I love your guys’ articles, I read them every time you post a new one so Ill definitely be waiting on a new analysis of this trade a year from now.

        • Robert Bullington says:

          Never mind, read your post a little more carefully. I don’t think Delgado ever had the chance of being anything better than a 6th starter/long relief pitcher. So I don’t think he really adds any significant value to a team. For a team to be willing to keep control of a player at such a high price for such a long time, that player would have to provide a lot more than the potential Delgado had/has and I don’t think anyone was fooled into thinking he was anything worthwhile.

          • Ryan P. Morrison says:

            Robert,

            Fair enough. I remember thinking at the time that the industry consensus seemed to be a #4 type, not exactly low risk but with maybe a slightly higher ceiling. In prepping for this post most of the articles I saw had Delgado in that range. If he was seen as a #6 type by both teams at the time of the trade, that obviously affects the analysis quite a bit (and makes it much more similar to the “hindsight value” numbers).

            Arroyo and Delgado are definitely on different levels now; when I compared them, I was pretending it was January 2013. I think you got there with your second comment, but if you think Delgado was thought of as something between a #4 and #5, and Arroyo is between a #3 and a #4, hopefully that doesn’t change the outcome of the analysis too much.

            I think there are a lot of Drurys in the minors and that only a few of them will end up being above-average major league players (after all, many players keep their jobs for several years, and you’d have to be better than fifteen of them to be above average), and I think that if Drury does see the majors, odds are he’ll be much more of a Chris Johnson than a Paul Goldschmidt. Drury has definitely hit, but not necessarily set the world on fire, and he’s not young for his league. But Jeff probably has a better handle on him than I do.

            I love this stuff. Thanks a lot for reading and commenting, Robert, and if you ever have a D-backs question you think we can help answer, please don’t hesitate. We never seem to run out of ideas for posts, but we don’t get to trade brains with other people, so the risk is that we tend to approach things from some angles more than others. Last Friday’s post was the result of someone pushing me to look at things differently, and I really enjoyed that exercise.

    • JaG says:

      Trumbo who had the most homeruns and rbi’s before he got hurt? The guy who had cut down on strikeouts and unfortunately was hitting more.ground balls for outside.Yes Skaggs seems like a good #3 Pollock has out performed Eaton and wouldn’t have had a chance to show that unless Eaton was traded? Jury is still out

  2. Hunter says:

    If only Upton hadn’t vetoed the trade to Seattle…

  3. Colin says:

    The trades that have baffled and frustrated me more than any have involved starting pitchers and starting pitching prospects. The Upton trade, minus Chris Johnson who I thought was too big of a player to just toss into the trade, seemed good for what we were looking for. Nobody could have predicted Prado being such a disappointment last year and so far this year. No matter what you say he was a proven performer and had demonstrated that he was very good at certain things. The fact was we did need a player that could consistently move players forward on base and hit for average. He had years with the Braves showing that he could do that consistently year after year. Chris Johnson should have stayed with the Dbacks and a minor prospect should have taken his place in that trade. That to me was the only real mistake. Some of our trades that have involved our pitching prospects as well as current starters have been somewhat baffling particularly Parker for Cahill and the contracts given to McCarthy and Bell. Granted hindsight is 50/50 but even at the time these seemed like stupid moves. Now we find ourselves with players and contracts no team would want and have given away all of our major prospects and semi veteran starters like Kennedy.

  4. Puneet says:

    Just out of curiosity, if we didn’t trade Upton or Eaton (or any of the terrible trades we’ve made), how would you see our outfield shaking out? Upton RF, Parra CF, Eaton LF? Pollock LF?

    • Ryan P. Morrison says:

      How it would shake out is probably as you describe, Upton in RF, and a big old mess of Pollock/Parra/Eaton in the other two spots, Eaton being the more likely guy to get pushed to LF.

      Given those four players… what they should do would have been a different question. There might not have been any way to know just how much Parra’s arm would play up in RF if Upton was still on the team. But if you put those four guys on one team now, Parra would still be my right fielder, with Upton in left. Pollock might be the better player right now, but I believe in Eaton’s OBP ability. I’d probably start Eaton in CF betting that his offense would more than make up for the difference defensively between Pollock and Eaton, which would make Pollock one of the two or three best fourth outfielders in the majors.

  5. […] Inside The Zona says the Justin Upton trade looks even worse a year later. […]

  6. russell says:

    to be honest, after watching justin so far for the braves,
    i’d rather have prado
    justin is too nonchalant in left and has no idea of the strike zone, takes way too many called strikes and then looks at the ump like he’s crazy for calling them
    i can see why gibson was frustrated with him

  7. Tommy says:

    gotta love the dbacks fans responses to this….To say scouts never thought Delgado would be anything more than a #4 is just plain baffling, and to say looking back you would rather have Prado than Upton sounds a bit like not wanting to admit your team made a massive failure…that would be like me as a Braves fan to say Im glad we traded Andrus, Harrison, Feliz and Salty for Teixiera lmao…and I cant stop laughing at the guy who said Parra is better than Justin Upton

    • Steven says:

      Depends on what you value more: defense or offense. If you really believe what the defensive numbers are saying about Parra (41 Runs Saved in the OF last year), then he blows Upton out of the water.
      If not and offense is more of your game when evaluating players, then of course it’s Upton in a landslide. Parra is limited out there and will be right around a league average hitter while Upton can and will change a game all by himself.

  8. Johnny Ringo says:

    Never seen a GM so single handedly disable a team on his own doing. If Towers is as “old school” as everyone says, he really needs to be replaced or needs to start taking way more account of traditional statistics and opinions.

    • Chief beef says:

      Towers needs to be tarred and feathered. Kendrick finally breaks out the checkbook and look what towers sticks him with!

      What drives me bananas about all this, is that there’s no reason we couldn’t have just offered prado a contract this winter. He was a free agent and the braves openly admitted they couldn’t/wouldn’t afford him! We clearly had zero need for Ahmed with owings and the Bauer short sale. Even if towers had gotten Teheran for Upton it wouldn’t have been enough; Teheran is a #2 at best. At least we could have held onto our best assets not having to trade for trumbo to replace upton. Assets which would’ve been better spent on an ace last winter or at the coming deadline. Too bad there’s nothing left to work with!

      I sincerely hope for the rest of the mlb’s sake that this is the last GM position towers ever holds.

  9. MC says:

    Interesting point at the end about the Dbacks not being able to fix pitchers. Wanted to add the example of Max Scherzer, a guy AZ had in the bullpen and let go for Ian Kennedy. The Tigers clearly saw something to work with there and AZ, rather than fixing a future Cy Young winner, opted to deal for someone that already seemed polished.

  10. mgm says:

    This may make you feel better: Frank Wren was never going to trade Julio Teheran. He was absolutely off-limits. So if Towers had insisted on Teheran, the deal would have been off. Arizona never had an option between Teheran and Delgado.

    • Ryan P. Morrison says:

      I think that during that 2012-2013 offseason, Teheran and Delgado were thought of as having similar value as assets, with one offering greater upside, and the other offering a higher floor. I distinctly remember the Rockies asking for either Teheran or Delgado (with Minor) in an offer of Dexter Fowler, and you only hear that kind of thing if the players are close in value.

      As for Teheran being in on this trade — the first news was that the Braves had offered Teheran and 2-3 other players for Upton (Dave O’Brien). Others were hearing it was Teheran and Ahmed, and maybe Gattis. In other words, all of the early news seemed to be coming from the Braves camp, and it was based on Teheran. Once we started hearing from the D-backs camp, the news turned into Delgado.

      Only way to know is to have been in the room with Frank Wren, but unless you’re saying you were in there, I think “absolutely off-limits” is a pretty big stretch. Tracking the news, it looks like Delgado was Towers’s idea.

  11. […] Since moving out of the rotation, Delgado’s stuff has played up at least a little bit; not having to throw the sinker at all seems to have helped. In a small sample of just 13.2 innings, Delgado’s batting average against has been excellent (.173, down from .444 in his short 2014 stint as a starter). He’s walked more than his fair share of hitters (7), but he’s also struck out quite a few (19). Sounds like a reasonable option to me if he’s not needed as a long reliever. And, hey, it might help Towers save face on the Justin Upton trade, for which the D-backs’ returns seem to be diminishing. […]

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