The Diamondbacks have recently made it known that Justin Upton, last season’s 13th most valuable player, is available for trade. Had he been made available last offseason, it would have caused a huge stir. Instead, I am just sort of confused. While Upton has been dramatically underperforming this season, and may be dealing with a lingering injury, it seems like drastic action to trade your team’s most valuable player one half-season after a playoff appearance. I would be happy to watch this particular trade unfold from afar, but the Rangers have been cited by multiple sources as being interested in acquiring Upton, and I kind of want to figure out why.
My main concern with Upton is that his performance has potentially been affected by an injury that has lingered for many months without clear resolution. Justin Upton injured his thumb in mid-April, and in the intervening time has not set the world on fire the way he did last season. In 2011, Upton contributed 6.4 Wins Above Replacement, easily leading his team. He was solid all around, contributing with good defense, decent baserunning, and a stellar 140 wRC+. So far this season, however, Upton has managed just a 96 wRC+, ranking him as a slightly below average hitter. The reason for his massive decline isn’t hard to identify, either. His on base percentage has barely declined, going from .369 to .353, owing to a slightly improved walk rate and a somewhat worse strikeout rate. Instead, his power is to blame. Or, rather, the complete absence thereof. His .ISO has fallen off a cliff, going from .240 to .122. He is on pace to produce roughly half the doubles and home runs he did last year, despite playing in the same park and facing mostly the same opposition.
This sort of power outage, especially in a hitter who is just 24 years old, is extremely uncommon, and pretty much the reverse of what you would expect from a typical hitter’s power progression. Its very good evidence that his thumb injury is in fact impeding him in some major way, and that without addressing that injury, surgically or through some other form of rehabilitation, Upton won’t be able to reach his explosive potential. The other possibility is that Upton’s 2011 season was an aberration, and that he isn’t that great of a play after all. Although Upton’s performance in 2010 and 2009 wasn’t as good as 2011, he was also younger then, and he still produced 3.0 and 4.8 WAR, respectively.His career .ISO is .199, and his career wRC+ is 116. Upton should be outperforming his career norms at his age, not regressing.
Which is not to say he isn’t still a good player. He is on pace for 2.8 WAR, ranking him as an above-average major leaguer. For comparison’s sake, he is slightly outperforming Nelson Cruz this season. On several teams, even the 2012 Upton would represent a significant upgrade over the alternative. The problem is the Rangers don’t seem like that team, on the face of it. Between Josh Hamilton, Craig Gentry, David Murphy, and Nelson Cruz the Rangers already have a full outfield, and Leonys Martin also looks to be contending for a regular spot in the lineup. The only real slot Upton could be of use to the Rangers is as a rotating DH/OF with Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz, essentially giving our two most injury-prone players more regular breaks, and also phasing out Michael Young as a DH and lineup fixture, as his performance has been nothing short of calamitous. Young, for all his leadership qualities, has a .303 OBP, and a 71 wRC+. However, I’m not convinced its economical to trade away some of our excellent crop of prospects just to slightly improve the outfield and lineup while simultaneously irritating a compulsive whiner. Instead, Upton’s real value to the team would be as a long-term asset. The Rangers could more easily bear the loss of Josh Hamilton to free agency, for instance. Taking on Upton’s salary won’t improve the financial flexibility of the Rangers, though, as he is signed through 2015, and is slated to make $9 million in 2013, and $14 million in 2014 and 2015. Even if Upton doesn’t return to greatness, he need only play slightly better than he has so far in 2012 in order to earn his contract, but he will still be much more expensive than Leonys Martin, for example.
While Upton is a good player, I don’t think he has much to contribute to the team, and I would prefer to see him traded somewhere else. While he might help the Rangers solve their long-term outfield problems, he is also being nagged by injuries, or has otherwise upset Diamondbacks management to the point where they are trying to jettison him just a year removed of his receiving MVP votes. Without a clearly defined role for him on the Rangers, I don’t think he’s worth the risk.