(The following was originally published at SB*Nation’s Pinstripe Alley)
Before Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, there was Justin Upton. The last 19-year old position player to debut in the majors before Trout and Harper, the Diamondbacks’ outfielder was widely heralded as the best young player in the game when he broke into the majors back in 2007. Now, he is trade bait.
While the rest of baseball has been fawning over Harper and Trout, the Diamondbacks have reportedly been shopping around their former wunderkind. When a team decides to trade a young player with past success and future potential, they are usually cutting costs and/or in a rebuilding mode. However, neither case applies to Arizona. Not only are the Diamondbacks just four games behind in the N.L. West, but Upton’s contract has three more years remaining at a very reasonable average annual salary of $14 million. In other words, GM Kevin Towers doesn’t have to trade Upton; he wants to. But, why?
Entering this year, Upton seemed as if he was on track to fulfill his potential. However, because of his struggles this season, the perception in Arizona now seems to be that Upton has been a disappointment. Some in the organization have even intimated that the two-time All Star isn’t a winning player. Meanwhile, others have expressed concern that the outfielder may be suffering from a chronic shoulder injury. If true, all of these reasons might give pause to a potential suitor, but if not, they could be setting the Diamondbacks up to make a mistake of historic proportions.
Even with his relatively poor first half, it seems absurd to suggest that Upton has been a disappointment. It was just last year that the outfielder ranked sixth among all N.L. position players in bWAR and fourth in fWAR. Such a season would be impressive at any age, but among the 5,486 23-year olds since 1901, Upton’s 5.7 bWAR was bettered by only 55. What’s more, going back three years prior, Upton’s cumulative fWAR of 14.2 ranked tenth best in the league …at the ages of 21 to 23. While most “top prospects” are playing in college or working their way up through the minor leagues, Upton has excelled at the major league level. And, with his prime still several years away, the chances are he’s only going to get better.
If the Diamondbacks are truly serious about trading Upton, the question becomes what team will benefit from their impatience? Could it be the Yankees? Should it be the Yankees?
It’s hard to deny that Upton would fit nicely in pinstripes. As a right handed hitting corner outfield, he would immediately fill what perhaps is the Yankees’ greatest current need. As a 24-year old, he would also give the aging Yankees’ lineup a much needed infusion of youth, not to mention a middle of the order hitter for many years to come. Finally, with a salary of less than $14 million over the next three seasons, Upton would slot in nicely as Nick Swisher’s replacement without hindering the team’s attempt to lower the 2014 payroll below the luxury tax threshold. The potential benefits are many, but are they worth the likely cost?
Over the last few years, the Yankees’ organization and its fans have become very protective of the team’s prospects. However, when a talent like Upton becomes available, those bonds need to be broken. In order to make a deal, Cashman would likely have to give KevinTowers, who recently worked as a special assignment scout for the Yankees, free reign to choose from among the team’s best prospects. A package starting with Manny Banuelos, Gary Sanchez, and Mason Williams doesn’t seem outlandish, but would Cashman be willing to pull the trigger? If not, the Yankees’ GM could wind up sharing the Diamondbacks’ regret.
Justin Upton is in a rare group of players who have had considerable success in the major leagues at a very young age. The roll call of that list reads like a who’s who of MVPs, All Stars, and Hall of Famers. That doesn’t mean Upton is destined for such greatness, but prospects shouldn’t stand in the way of the Yankees attempting to find out. After all, who needs the next Justin Upton when the current one can be had instead?