I have been amongst the very vocal minority who is against the idea of the Pirates acquiring Justin Upton. On the surface his acquisition makes a whole lot of sense as it would give the Pirates a big boost to their lineup, fill a hole in the OF and provide a long term piece. However when you dig a little deeper you will find several problems with a potential deal.
Upton’s trade value right now has to be sky high and I’d imagine it would take an overpay to acquire him from the Diamondbacks. The way I see it there are 3 possible packages in which the Pirates could try and acquire Upton with. I’m going to focus on what I believe would be the center piece of any trade.
Taillon/Marte – I see this as the bare minimum the Diamondbacks would likely accept and to be honest I see this as highly unlikely because they are rumored to believe their outfield is deep, they are looking for major league ready help and they are not to fond of Marte.
Cole/Hanson – I see this as the prospect package it would likely take to acquire Upton if the Diamondbacks decided to accept prospects that is. This would give the a near major league ready front of the rotation starter in Cole and a high end shortstop prospect in Hanson.
Alvarez/Lincoln – This package seems to fit best with what the Diamondbacks are currently looking for. They get immediate help at 3B and either in the rotation or the bullpen depending on how they see Lincoln.
Analysis: I see issues with all 3 of these packages. The Alvarez/Lincoln package would severely hurt the major league team and take away the Pirates best source of pure power and it would also hurt the bullpen by taking away one of the team’s best relievers. In the Cole/Hanson package the Pirates are trading away their best prospect in Cole and hurting next year’s rotation. Cole is probably going to be counted on to boost the rotation midseason. The last package Taillon/Marte seems the easiest for the Pirates to part with and on the surface is something they should consider but as I will try to point out later it is too much for Upton.
The general consensus people have is that Upton’s contract is a team friendly deal. However he is now at the back end of it and while it is still a bargain if he produces at the high level he has shown himself capable it can be an absolute albatross if he doesn’t and there are reasons to believe he won’t. Over the next three and half years he is still owed over 40 million dollars that is large sum for the Pirates to take on.
While the Pirates could and would raise payroll to absorb it it is unrealistic to expect the payroll to go too far north of 80 million dollars. The Pirates have often been compared to teams like the Brewers and Cardinals who consistently have payrolls over 80 million but they are a mid market team. For that to be a possibility for the Pirates they would have to draw more than 3 million fans meaning they would have to sell out nearly every game and we know that isn’t going to happen. No way 30,000 plus fans come to see a Wednesday night game in April against a team like the Rockies when it is 45 degrees outside and the Penguins are in the playoffs.
Furthermore the Pirates would have 28.5 million committed to just the outfield in 2015 meaning they would have approximately 50 million to field the rest of a team. The threesome of Alvarez, Walker and McDonald are likely to take another approximately 18-20 million. That just doesn’t leave much wiggle room for the Pirates. Most of the rest of the team would have to be filled with league min guys or inexpensive veterans.
Upton has some terrifying home and away splits and I have yet found a satisfactory explanation except that Chase Field inflates players numbers. If we assume that is the case (which at this point doesn’t seem like much of an assumption) we can be and should be very wary of what Upton does in other parks. PNC Park is not friendly to right handed power hitters and would likely hinder Upton.Just to get it out there here are his slash lines for home and road.
Home: .302/.385/.539 (.924 OPS) (1369 PA)
Road: .251/.328/.414 (.742 OPS) (1381 PA)
We are not talking about an insignificant sample size here, 1381 PA is a ton of data and those numbers are far from impressive. To put the .742 OPS into perspective since the end of his monster rookie season Garrett Jones has put up a .743 OPS for the Pirates. That is a good valuable player but is it worth more than 40 million dollars over 3 years and 2 months? I don’t think so.
Then again maybe I’m being unfair. As a whole this season major league hitters have an OPS of .743 at home and .709 on the road. Last season was a similar story at .734 and .706 respectively. So it is natural to assume a hitter will adjust and hit better at his home park than at visiting parks. So let’ look at a stat that will utilize both his home and road data while adjusting to become park neutral. For his entire career Justin Upton has an OPS+ of 116. That is a nice number and is comparable to Neil Walker who has a 112 OPS+ for his career. So for a comparison lets look at Walker’s home numbers and see what an offensive player of that caliber does at PNC. Walker’s career slash line at PNC is .287/.345/.422 (.766 OPS).
So none of these numbers are too optimistic but let’s for a second throw that out the window and say he adjusts to PNC and that playing a lot of his road games in more hitter friendly NL central parks instead of NL West parks helps him out. So let’s give him an OPS of say 800 is that enough to justify his contract and the large price required to get him? I say no but others may disagree. Even so this seems like a fairly optimistic projection and probably represents the minimum people would expect.
There is always the possibility that Upton comes in, matures, settles in and post his Arizona numbers here and provides the Pirates with an OPS near .900 and in that case he would definitely be worth it. But what are the odds he reaches one of these levels? I’m not particularly keen on it but there is a greater than zero chance and to be overly optimistic I’ll even call it a coin flip. So essentially the question comes down to are you willing to risk 3 years of this franchise’s development on what basically amounts to a coin flip? I find that to be absurd but if someone out there truly thinks that is a risk worth taking well its their opinion.