Justin Upton continues to be available, according to industry rumors. As Arizona approaches Spring Training with a glut of outfielders, there’s been no shortage of teams inquiring about the potentially budding star, including the Mets.
But as high as the demand may be, the price is equally great. Diamondbacks General Manager Kevin Towers arranged a trade last week with the Seattle Mariners for two major league relievers, a top pitching prospect and a minor league shortstop. That deal when nowhere after Upton enforced his no-trade clause, limited to just four teams.
Between the massive interest and the possible cost, the trade market for the right fielder is clear as mud.
What is equally as unclear is what exactly teams are lining up for. Will whomever ultimately acquires Upton find a young, superstar outfielder or an overpriced, underachieving starter?
Upton was taken by Arizona with the first pick of the 2005 draft. Younger brother of David Wright’s childhood teammate B.J. Upton, Justin came with the label of a future five-tool player. He finally cracked the majors in 2007, getting 140 at-bats that season.
He played in 108 games the next year, the first of his five consecutive seasons playing at least 100 games. Upton did miss some time in 2009 and 2010 with a strained right oblique, but has largely been free of significant health woes like those of powerful speedsters like Grady Sizemore or Carlos Beltran.
Upton doesn’t seem to be an injury risk, good news for someone who emphasizes speed as part of his game. The combination of speed and power is what makes the young right fielder so appealing. Finding right fielders capable of double-digits home runs and stolen bases in a season is not easy. Superstar Matt Kemp put up at least 20 home runs and 15 stolen bases in 2011, future star Jason Heyward and Bryce Harper did it in 2012, while Ben Zobrist found success in both years. A few other players do it each year, but it’s something of a crapshoot. Budding star Bryce Harper came close last season with 22 home runs and 18 stolen bases.
The Mets of 2013 can use that infusion of both power and speed, assuming Upton can actually provide it.
Through 731 games in his career, he averages 33 doubles, 24 home runs and 18 stolen bases with a 278/.357/.475 slash per season. Those numbers alone are intriguing and would warrant some consideration, but they’re also not worthy of a star’s paycheck.
His numbers in 2009 were well above that average, but they fell somewhat below in 2010. In 2011, Upton flashed signs of greatness. He finished that year with 39 doubles, 31 home runs, 21 stolen bases and a .289/.369/.529 slash line. According to Yahoo Sports, among all right fielders, he finished 10th in average, 8th in stolen bases, 7th in slugging, 6th in home runs and 6th in doubles
But last year, his power disappeared again. Upton finished the 2012 campaign with 24 doubles, 17 home runs, 18 stolen bases and a 280/.355/.430 slash line. Among all right fielders, that placed him 12th for average, tied for 12th in stolen bases, 25th in Slugging, 30th in home runs and 33rd in doubles.
Upton’s never been shy about striking out a lot – at least 121 strikeouts in his five latest seasons, but his average and on-base percentage have stabilized near his career average. What’s disconcerting is the power outage. For someone with a career 24.7 at bats per home run, dropping from 19.1 to 32.6 is a red flag. His extra base hit percentage also dipped between 2011 and 2012 from 11.1 percent to 7.2 percent; his career average is 9.3 percent.
Upton has always hit right-handed pitching with more authority, although he has a better batting average against southpaws. Throughout his career, the right fielder has 72 home runs and a .275 average against righties compared to 36 home runs and a .284 average against lefties. In 2012, 11 of Upton’s 17 home runs came against right-handed pitchers. In 2011, it was 21 of 31. In 2010, just 2 of his 17 home runs came against southpaws.
It wasn’t the double plays or productive outs in 2012 either. He grounded into 6 percent of 125 double play opportunities in 2012, compared to 7 percent of 123 opportunities in 2011. He succeeded in 25 percent of 55 chances for a productive out in 2012, slightly lower than his 29 percent in 52 chances the year prior.
One possible clue to the lack of power in 2012 can be found examining his hit trajectory. Through his career, Upton has 100 home runs and a .265 batting average on fly balls, with 8 home runs and a .760 batting average on line drives. In 2011, he had 28 home runs and a .271 average on fly balls, and 3 home runs and a .769 average on line drives. Both sets of numbers are similar to his career figures. But in 2012, his fly ball batting average took a nosedive, down to .216. He did hit 15 home runs with fly balls, as well as 2 home runs and a .788 batting average with line drives.
But despite losing so much power last year, the numbers still argue he’s worth a starting job. According to rWAR, scores between 0-2 are replacement level, 2-5 are starter-caliber, 5-8 are all-star quality and 8+ are MVP caliber. Upton posted a 3.8 rWAR in 2009, 1.4 in 2010, 5.7 in 2011 and 2.1 in 2012. Assuming his day-to-day performance is somewhere in between, rWAR says Upton is a solid major league right fielder.
But with so much uncertainty around his power, potential trade cost and value for someone slated to make $14.5 million when his contract expires as a 27-year-old in 2015, there are no easy answers surrounding Upton’s future.