The Upton brothers are young and very talented, and they work relatively cheap. So why might this be the perfect time to trade them?
Kevin Towers, the genial 49-year-old who in September took over as the general manager of the Diamondbacks, apologized for his tardiness in returning a phone call last week. He explained that he had been hosting some representatives from the Yomiuri Giants of Japan's Central League, and the meeting had run long. "They've got interest in one of our players," Towers said. A beat. "Justin Upton."
He was joking; Upton won't be heading that far east anytime soon. But the 23-year-old rightfielder, who was the first pick in the draft at age 17, Baseball America's second-best prospect at 18, the majors' youngest player at 19 and an All-Star at 21—and who Josh Byrnes, Towers's predecessor, signed to a six-year, $51.25 million contract extension only last March—might be headed somewhere. Last month Towers, who spent 14 largely successful seasons as the Padres' G.M., from 1995 through 2009, made it known that Upton, who combines superstar potential with reasonable salaries through 2015, could be had for the right (read: an exorbitant) price. He says that no fewer than 25 of baseball's other 29 teams have been in touch about him, ensuring that Towers would not lack for conversation partners this week at baseball's winter meetings, which began on Monday in Orlando. "This type of contract, with this type of young player who's entering his prime, seemed not to scare away even some of the smaller-market clubs," says Towers, who adds that floating Upton as trade bait constitutes more than a publicity gambit by his recently irrelevant franchise, which reached the NLCS in 2007 but has finished last in the division in each of the past two years. "My approach has always been, nobody's untouchable," he says. "If the right deal presents itself, you need to look at it. This organization is more than just one player away. We lost 90 games with Justin Upton. You only trade him if you think the players you're getting back will make you a better ball club not only immediately but in the future."
A number of lower-revenue clubs have in recent years turned themselves into contenders with the help of savvy trades of stars in their primes. Included among them have been the Indians, who in 2002 dealt Bartolo Colon to the Expos for a package that included Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore; the Twins, who the following November got Joe Nathan and Francisco Liriano from the Giants for catcher A.J. Pierzynski; and the Rangers, who reached the World Series this fall behind two key players—shortstop Elvis Andrus and closer Neftali Feliz—who were acquired from the Braves in July 2007 for slugger Mark Teixeira. But none of those established stars was as young, talented and affordable for as long as Upton is. "It's very hard for me to understand how to put a valuation on him," says one rival executive. "There's really no model to work from as far as the speculative return."
No model in baseball, at least. The blockbuster deal that Towers is seeking to replicate was consummated 21 years ago this fall—the trade dreamed up by first-year Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson in 1989 that sent in-his-prime running back Herschel Walker to the Vikings for a package of players and draft picks that turned the Cowboys from 1--15 laughingstocks into a team that within three years would win the first of its three Super Bowls in four seasons. "If we were to make a deal," says Towers, "my hope would be that we could bring back potentially two Justin Uptons. He's a terrific young talent, and there's nothing he can't do. The sky's the limit on what he can become."
That Upton is still referred to mostly in terms of what he will be, as opposed to what he already is, suggests the degree to which he has spent his first three and a half seasons bouncing around the troposphere. He will quickly admit that. "For me, the biggest thing has been inconsistency," he says. "First two years [he batted .242 with 17 home runs and 53 RBIs in 151 games in 2007 and '08], I was feeling it out, did O.K. In '09 I had a good season [.300, 26 homers, 86 RBIs and 20 steals, while playing stellar defense in right]. This year, kind of a step back [.273, 17 homers, 69 RBIs, while sustaining a 100-point drop in OPS, from .899 to .799]. Moving forward, I think the numbers'll be there."
Upton isn't the only one who holds that opinion. "There's just so much pressure on those who are labeled the top prospects at the amateur levels these days," says one longtime scout. "He hasn't hit .300 with 30 home runs and stolen 40 bases yet, and that would be the only way he would be looked at as a success by some. Justin was a 19-year-old major leaguer. For some people that hasn't been good enough. But the tools are all there, and the ability to use them are all there, and there aren't many of those guys in the whole world.
"All I ever wished," adds the scout, "was that there were more Uptons."
There is, of course, one more: Justin's older brother, Rays centerfielder B.J., who was born to Manny and Yvonne Upton three Augusts before Justin, was a very high draft pick (No. 2 overall) three Junes before him and who made his major league debut three years to the day (Aug. 2, 2004) before him. B.J.'s big league career, like that of his brother, has featured "flashes of brilliance," in the words of Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon—such as his first full season, 2007, when he hit .300 with 24 home runs and 82 RBIs, and the '08 postseason, in which he hit seven homers in 16 games. But it has also, like Justin's, been hampered by nagging injuries (to B.J.'s shoulder; to Justin's oblique) and a lack of sustained success (B.J. had a .239 average with a .317 OBP over the past two seasons, albeit with 84 stolen bases and 108 extra base hits) that has drawn him some criticism. "He's a tools guy whose performance hasn't matched his tools," says one major league executive.
"B.J.'s really held to a high standard, part of that based on the potential he's had from the day he arrived," says Maddon. "But this guy's had to learn on the major league level, and he was really brought up way too soon. He didn't pass Algebra 2. He didn't pass English 3. He just kept getting pushed, pushed."
Complicating B.J.'s reputation, say both his father and Maddon (who twice benched him in 2008 for lack of hustle, incidents the manager says were isolated mental mistakes that could have been eradicated by proper minor league seasoning), is the way people perceive his on-field manner. "B.J.'s been stuck with the stigma all his life that he's lazy," says Manny Upton. "Actually, he's playing hard, but it doesn't appear he's playing hard. Justin shows his aggression more than B.J."
B.J. is 6'3" to Justin's 6'2", 185 pounds to Justin's 205, and slightly fleeter of foot, if less powerful. Other than that, the two are awfully similar—and, like Justin, B.J. might also be on the move sooner than anyone expected. His unfulfilled potential and the chronically cost-cutting Rays' desire to maximize his trade value before he gets too close to free agency (he is two winters away) make him a potential chip. Maddon has considered the possibility that his days as B.J.'s manager might be growing short. "When you get a really good player, a really good athlete, you want to see it all the way through," he says. "I would love to be there to be part of B.J.'s first killer year. He's had some good years, no question, and some really great moments. But I can't wait until he really arrives as a superstar in the major leagues, and I'd like to be around B.J. when that happens."
The winter meetings, which breed an atmosphere in which even five-tool players with almost-certain-to-be-realized potential can get traded, were seemingly made for the type of blockbuster deal for which the Uptons are candidates. "When you get in that environment and everybody's in a hotel and rumors are flying, it's a competitive environment and an emotional environment," explains Mark Shapiro, who was just elevated to president of the Indians after 10 years as the club's G.M. "It's often the impetus for something unexpected happening."
Though their names figured to be uttered often in Orlando, the Upton brothers didn't seem particularly bothered during a conference call last week. B.J. was calling from his home in the Tampa area. Justin phoned in from his place in Phoenix. They traded brotherly insults about their culinary skills ("B.J., I don't think he's ever turned on the stove," said Justin) and B.J.'s victory on the golf course over Thanksgiving ("The only time B.J. talks trash is when he's winning; if he's losing, he shuts down and doesn't say anything," said Justin. "I do backstrokes in his head," retorted B.J.). Then the conversation turned to the fanciful idea that they might be traded for one another. What else besides their own brother, they were asked, should their present teams receive in return for their services?
"If I was traded for Justin, what else should the Diamondbacks get back?" B.J. asked. "Draft picks."
"You can't trade draft picks in baseball, man!" said Justin.
"They might need to make a new rule, then. Draft picks. Or Justin and cash."
Then it was Justin's turn, and he had his answer ready: "From the Rays, for me? They'd need B.J., [and pitchers] James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson."
Both brothers laughed, and so did Towers when he was told of Justin's hypothetical package—which, as it included two potential stars (in B.J. and Hellickson) and a solid if recently struggling starter (in Shields), was one the G.M. would have to consider. "How come he left [Evan] Longoria out?" Towers joked, referring to the Rays' 25-year-old All-Star third baseman, before quickly adding, "I would rather not tamper with somebody else's players. But Justin seems to be a pretty good evaluator, and when he's done playing, I'll sign him up as one of my scouts."
Justin Upton might not be done playing for another two decades, of course, and there is still the chance that he will play all of those years in Arizona. In fact, Towers sounded as if he might have simply been allowing shoppers to kick the tires on his finest late-model vehicle, if only to move their interest to his lot's more affordable options. (On Monday, Towers, who must improve a bullpen that in 2010 had the sixth-worst ERA—5.74—in major league history, sent slugging third baseman Mark Reynolds to the Orioles for two minor league relievers.) "I wouldn't say we're close to doing anything. Realistically, I think we probably end up keeping him," Towers said. Then he added, "He shouldn't think we're trying to kick him out the door. I'm a new G.M., and I need to do my due diligence."
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"FROM THE RAYS, FOR ME?" ASKS JUSTIN. "THEY'D NEED B.J., JAMES SHIELDS AND JEREMY HELLICKSON."
Photograph by MARK J. REBILAS/US PRESSWIRE
JUSTIN TIME? With his talent, youth and upside, the younger Upton (left) could command a slew of players, including "two Justin Uptons," Towers (above) hopes.
JOHN R. MCCUTCHEN/UNION-TRIBUNE/GETTY IMAGES
[See caption above]
GARY BOGDON (MADDON)
IS B.J. OK? The Rays' Upton has shown flashes of brilliance, but has also provoked questions about his makeup and been benched by Maddon (above).
JAMES ALLISON/SOUTHCREEK GLOBAL/ZUMAPRESS.COM (B.J. UPTON)
[See caption above]