Monday, September 28, 2015

Reviewing Hart's Trades: The Justin Upton Blockbuster

The Braves have been active in John Hart's first season at the helm to the tune of SIXTEEN TRADES! Sixteen deals involving major league talent going one direction or in both. Sixteen deals that include over 50 different players, a few draft picks, lots of cash, and two Uptons. It's been friggin unreal to see what the Braves have done.

With most of the season in our rear view, it's time to start reviewing each one of these trades. This series is going take a little while to get through, but hey, it gives me something to write about.

Trades Already Reviewed
La Stella for Vizcaino
Heyward/Walden for Miller/Jenkins
Varvaro for Kurcz

The Trade
Justin Upton and Aaron Northcraft to the Padres for Max Fried, Dustin Peterson, Mallex Smith, and Jace Peterson. I reviewed this deal shortly after it happened here.

The Rationale
This was the move that cemented one thing - the Braves are in full rebuild. Oh, sure, they toyed with the idea by trading away Jason Heyward, but by adding Nick Markakis, the Braves could have (and appeared to) argue that they felt they were a better team with Shelby Miller AND Markakis than Heyward and - I don't know - Eric Stults? Wait, that signed him, too. Either way, the Braves made a compelling argument that they would be better team because of the Heyward deal and looking at the roster, there was enough firepower to think that could be true.

Then, this trade happened. While the Holy John Trinity continued to suggest that they were both trying to improve for the current and the future, only the casual observer could accept that as even reasonably possible. Atlanta moved Upton to the Padres during San Diego's ridiculous effort to build a contender overnight and took advantage of their desperate endeavor by pilfering four prospects from the Whale's Vagina. It immediately brought some extra talent to a system needing in a boost and it assured that the Braves would get more than just a compensation draft pick for Upton.

San Diego had a great farm system and then A.J. Preller happened. In the span of two days, Preller finalized trades for Matt Kemp, Derek Norris, Wil Myers, Will Middlebrooks, and Upton. The outfield of Upton, Myers, and Kemp was predictably a bad idea and the whole thing blew up. Preller could say he held out and didn't give the Braves the pitcher they really wanted - Matt Wisler. Of course, that would change when Preller got so desperate to put a bow on his first offseason, but we'll get to that deal later.

As for the players the Braves got, I was a bit underwhelmed at first, though I probably over-inflated Upton's worth. Fried was a lefty many compared to Cole Hamels, but the youngster would miss all of 2015 while Smith was a speedy outfielder with questions about how real his offense was outside of hitter-friendly leagues. Jace Peterson also had his question marks, though people liked his speed and high floor. Plus, he was major league ready, but my concern about him was that, "he might only be a utility guy for a good team, stretched by bad teams into too many plate appearances." As for Dustin Peterson, the Braves got a guy with some high-level potential, but who was also raw and many wondered if he could stay on the infield.

There was another guy in this deal. Aaron Northcraft, a right-hander who pitched out of a 3/4's delivery, went to the Padres. Northcraft was a slow riser up the chain after being a 10th round selection in 2009 out of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California. In 2012, he threw a no-hitter for the Hillcats (7 innings because of a double header) and K'd over a batter an inning, but he never seemed to get high in the Braves good graces despite 38 starts at AA and two trips to Arizona for the Fall League. He had turned in a much better second run just before being placed in this deal.

Short-Term Results
For the Padres, this season has been a study in how not to build as team overnight. It cost Bud Black his job and despite all the moves, the Padres are assured of their fifth consecutive losing season, their longest streak of consecutive losing seasons since five-straight down years following their World Series appearance in 1998. You can point to a lot of issues, though it would be difficult to place the blame on Justin Upton. While he's still not posting superstar offensive numbers, he should finish the year with his first back-to-back 3 WAR seasons of his career and will lead the Padres in both homers and steals. His defense remains a negative, but he plays a less important defensive position so that's a trade-off one might accept.

For what it's worth, Northcraft continues to pitch fairly well at AA and awfully at AAA. He was DFA'd back in February and might be a minor league free agent at the end of this year.

While the Braves miss Upton's bat in the lineup, they did get a full-time starter in Jace Peterson, though his production fell off a cliff in the second half. Fried missed the season as expected while Dustin Peterson had an uneven year. He was great in April and May as he hit near .300 with an OPS well over .800, but hit a wall after May's bus accident that affected several Carolina Mudcats. In his defense, only eight of his plate appearances in 2015 came against pitchers older than him. While it wasn't a great year for Peterson by any means, it also wasn't a bad one. It just kind of exists.

The breakout star of this deal has been Mallex Smith. He was the Braves' Minor League Player of the Year while leading the system with 57 steals compared to just 13 times he was caught. His .306 average probably would have been even higher had he not gone through a few weeks of adjustment following his well-deserved promotion to AAA. He only added 27 extra base hits, though 18 came with Gwinnett. Still, he showed a strong on-base capability that his predecessor as future vroomstar, Jose Peraza, just lacked.

Long-Term Outlook
The chances J-Up leaves San Diego in the offseason seem strong, though we may recall that they added his brother Melvin Upton Jr. to the mix. Still, it's probably good money that J-Up bolts, which is almost as interesting of a free agency case as Heyward. Whereas Heyward depends on overall value to trump the lack of phenomenal numbers at the plate, Upton is more traditional with a big power stroke, though he has some decent value on the basepathes. In an era of declining offense, Upton's numbers must be taken into context. Over the last three years, Upton has a 128 RC+, good for 33rd in baseball in that time frame. To compare, Chase Headley plays a more important position and plays it at a higher rate and got just $52M over 4 years. Granted, he was coming off a much worse year, but a three-year RC+ of 123 entering free agency. Nelson Cruz had a (3-year) 122 RC+ last winter when the M's gave him 4-yr/$58M contract.

That would be a bargain basement price for Upton, which I don't expect to be the case. The problem is finding a high-end comparison for a guy with Upton's relative youth (28), consistency (2.2 fWAR low, 6.3 fWAR high, 3.8 fWAR avg since 2009), and power (3 consecutive seasons over .200 ISO). So, watching his free agency will be interesting. Some have suggested the Braves should try to bring him back - don't count on it. Meanwhile, the Padres may have gotten just one year out of Upton (+ a draft pick) and Northcraft failing to solve the AAA level for a four-pack of prospects.

At worst, the Braves got depth out of this trade, but at least Smith and Fried have first-division starter appeal. Smith might be pushed out by numbers in the outfield next spring and forced to spend a few months at AAA waiting for a trade to shake up things. Even so, he's definitely put his name in as a potential difference maker at the top of the lineup. As for Fried, obviously it sucks to miss a year in development, but we're talking about a guy ranked in the Top 100 heading into 2014. He'll be 22 next year and probably will be on an innings count (though it should be pitches, but I digress). With any luck, he'll be in the AA mix next year at some point and then in the discussion for a major league spot midway into 2017 at the earliest. As for the Petersons, Dustin moved to left field so his top-end value took a hit. He's young and he has great raw power potential. He could be a surprise guy next year. Jace, I'm still not sold on. He could be a high-end utility guy in the Mark DeRosa role (with less power) or a starter exposed by too much time. The Braves might need him to log serious time in 2016 if a better replacement's not there.

Overall, this one is a big winner for Hart. The Padres embarrassed themselves this season by trading away so much talent for so little in results and Atlanta would benefit not only in this deal, but the trade months later.

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