What It Will Take To Acquire Justin Upton – And Why the Mets Should Do It
If there’s one player in baseball capable of solving the myriad problems facing the Mets in 2012, it’s Justin Upton. He plays the outfield. He’s right-handed. He’s not Jason Bay. He’s signed to a fairly team friendly deal through 2015. He’s a childhood friend of David Wright. He’s not Jason Bay. And, when he’s on top of his game, he’s an MVP-caliber player.
Of course, most of these attributes also intrigue most other teams. So if the Mets have any intention of acquiring Upton this off-season, they better be willing to give up a boatload of talent.
So after playing armchair GM during several lecture classes, here’s what I think would constitute a reasonably fair deal for both sides:
According to most knowledgeable folks, the Diamondbacks are seeking big-league-ready talent, as opposed to prospects. It’s also apparent that they are, like every other organization, looking for starting pitching
The obvious starting point is Jon Niese. After an uninspiring start to his big league career plagued by nagging injuries, Niese appeared to put it all together in 2012, throwing 190.1 innings with 3.40 ERA. He also has a very team-friendly contract that potentially takes him all the way through 2017, and he’s left-handed, so his trade value goes without saying.
The question is what to expect from Niese going forward. From 2010 to 2011, he appeared to be plagued by bad luck, with a BABIP of .324 and .333. His ERA hovered around the low- to mid-4s, despite the fact his FIP and xFIP seemed to indicate his ERA should have been nearly a full run lower.
In 2012, however, the baseball gods proved far more charitable toward Niese. He posted a 3.40 ERA with a BABIP of .270. That probably isn’t sustainable, as only a handful of pitchers can consistently post such a low BABIP. There’s no evidence that suggests Niese did anything different in 2012 as opposed to the previous two years; his peripherals in 2012 were pretty much in line with the rest of his career, as was his batted-ball profile.
So, the only reasonable conclusion I can draw from this is that the “real” Jonathon Niese is probably a cross between the pitcher of 2010-2011, and the Jon Niese of 2012. Think high 3s to low 4 ERA, 2-3 wins per year. In this time of depressed offense, that essentially makes him a poor man’s number two, or a solid number three.
Of course, the Dbacks are also going to need at least one other major piece — probably a hitter. They are going to need an outfielder to replace Upton. While the likes of Kirk Nieuwenhuis or even Lucas Duda might sweeten the deal, neither qualify as the kind of high-caliber player Arizona will almost certainly, and justifiably, insist upon.
Wilmer Flores might fit the bill, but he is still at least a half-season away from making any impact on the big-league level, and with Chris Johnson coming off a late-season surge with the Dbacks, and top prospect Matt Davidson waiting in the wings, Flores’ path to Arizona isn’t quite so clear. Flores and Davidson are somewhat redundant; both are unlikely to make any big-league contribution until at least mid 2013, and may or may not stick at third. Davidson’s game is more skewed toward power, while Flores is more of a contact hitter, but both are at a very similar stage in their development. Perhaps Flores could be used to pry away Trevor Bauer, who would be Jon Niese’s replacement in this case?
Ruben Tejada, however, fits Arizona’s needs very, very well. Following Stephen Drew’s departure, Cliff Pennington appears to be the heir apparent to the shortstop job in Arizona. While Arizona can probably do worse than Pennington, they appear to be looking for a longer-term solution at the position.
To say I am a reluctant to include Ruben Tejada would be the understatement of the year. Tejada’s performance for a 22 year old at the big league level is nothing short of exceptional. Not to mention, a team with a long-term outlook such as the Mets probably should not be in the business of trading cost-controlled everyday shortstops.
Still, you have to give to get, and the Dbacks have a glaring need at shortstop. And not to be a negative Nancy, but Tejada is hardly without question marks. It is hard to say how much room for improvement he has at the plate, given his lack of physical gifts. Right now, according to UZR, his defense is merely a tick above average at shortstop, so as he continues to fill out, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him eventually slide across the bag to second base, further diminishing his value.
Of course, I’m just playing devil’s advocate. I can see Tejada following a similar career path to that of Erick Aybar, albeit with less speed; that may not sound sexy, but Aybar’s been a 3-4 win player most of his career. Or, he might just end up another Cliff Pennington: a mostly punchless hitter who can nevertheless hold his own at the position.
At the very least, it’s probably a toss-up between Pennington and Tejada for the next season or two. Pennington’s BABIP in 2012 was almost 40 points below his career average, so his offensive production should regress back toward his 2010-2011 levels.
Would Niese and Tejada be enough to entice the Dbacks? At the very least, they will probably ask for another piece to sweeten the pie — someone such as Kirk Nieuwenhuis or Mike Baxter, or maybe Jeurys Familia or Jenrry Mejia. But it wouldn’t surprise me if they insisted upon Flores as well.
I think there’s a case to be made that such a deal would benefit the Mets. At the bare minimum, Upton will provide just as much value as Niese or Tejada, and getting a player of his ilk at just 25 years old is an exorbitantly rare opportunity. Then again, I come from a fantasy baseball mindset of quality over quantity, and perhaps I’m underestimating Tejada’s value.