Exploring Justin Upton’s Trade Value

If you’re still looking for offense on the free agent market, you’re basically out of luck, other than the still-available Chase Headley. Looking at our Free Agent Tracker, the only hitter left who projects to reach a realistic 2 WAR — i.e., league average — is Jed Lowrie, who is undeniably talented but rarely healthy and probably not a shortstop. (Ignore the overly optimistic outlook on Daric Barton, since this is using Steamer/600, and he’s had 600 plate appearances total over the last four seasons.)

That means that if you’re still in a situation where you need a bat and you don’t have the finances or the flexibility to add Headley, you’re either totally out of luck or you’re looking to the trade market. That’s where the Padres turned in landing Matt Kemp, for better or worse. It’s where the Cardinals went when they landed Jason Heyward, and how the Tigers picked up Yoenis Cespedes, and how Josh Donaldson landed in Toronto, and how Miguel Montero became a Cub.

While we can’t ever truly know for certain who is “available” on the trade market, we can say with reasonable confidence that Justin Upton is. As the Braves signaled their intention to shift from win-now to something resembling a mild rebuild with the firing of GM Frank Wren and the trade of Heyward, moving Upton — who can be a free agent following 2015 — seems like the logical next step. Unsurprisingly, his player tag at MLBTR has been full of activity over the last few weeks.

Upton, for the moment, is still a Brave, and we don’t know whether that’s because Atlanta wants too much or other teams aren’t stepping up — the answer, almost certainly, is both. But with the added information we have thanks to recent moves, can we get closer to finding his true trade value?

Now that we’ve seen what Boston got from Detroit for Cespedes, we can look at Upton with a bit of a more informed approach, because the two outfielders are surprisingly similar. That’s the case whether you look at them only in 2014:

Upton 641 .270 .342 .491 .363 133 29 0.6 8 24.4 -7.7 3.9
 Cespedes 645 .260 .301 .450 .326 109 22 3.2 7 9.8 0.4 3.4

…or over the last three years, which comprise Cespedes’ entire big league career…

2012-14 PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ HR BsR SB Off Def WAR
 Upton 1,912 .271 .350 .462 .354 124 73 9.2 34 60.4 -33.7 9.1
Cespedes 1,759 .263 .316 .464 .336 115 71 5.2 30 35.9 -14.2 8.5

…or by what Steamer/600 sees from them both in 2015:

Upton 600 .262 .344 .460 .353 126 25 1.3 8 18.7 -9.1 3.0
Cespedes 600 .268 .319 .467 .342 118 24 0.5 7 12.3 -3.1 3.1

Upton has had the better bat, especially in 2014, though Steamer sees a milder edge next year. Cespedes has been the more valuable fielder, and that’s less of a dig at Upton (who has been adequate) than it is recognition of just how deadly Cespedes’ arm has been. Overall, the on-field value has been nearly identical.

Off the field, both have their advantages. Upton is two years younger, about to enter his age-28 season, and that matters, though perhaps less than you’d expect it would if you’re looking at him as merely a one-year rental as opposed to the long-term investment he’ll plan to be following the season. Cespedes is cheaper, set to make $10.5 million in 2015 as opposed to Upton’s $14.5 million, but the terms of his contract state that he can’t be given a qualifying offer. However you want to value that, it’s something that Upton brings and Cespedes doesn’t.

If one is more valuable in trade than the other, it’s probably Upton, though not by a great deal. I say that in deference to the qualifying offer, that offense generally gets paid better than defense, and for whatever value a team might place upon having an exclusive negotiating window to attempt to set up an extension. It’s counterbalanced some by Cespedes’ cheaper salary and superior defense in a sport that increasingly values it, but probably not enough to make the two 100% even in trade discussions. So what’s that worth?

Here’s what it was worth for Cespedes. The Tigers gave away Rick Porcello’s age-26 season (at an estimated $12 million in arbitration) and one likely qualifying offer draft pick in return for Cespedes, middle reliever Alex Wilson and low-level pitching prospect Gabe Speier. Porcello has been a steady three-win pitcher for most of his career, and is projected to be just that again in 2015. Detroit changed the way in which they’ll get those three wins, filling a hole that would have been difficult to fill on the market, but didn’t overall didn’t greatly change their team projections for the season.

Of course, the Braves aren’t going to be looking for a one-year major league starter — sorry, Reds fans, you can keep your Mike Leake — and published reports indicate that they may be overvaluing what they think Upton is worth. In November, Joel Sherman wrote in the New York Post that the Braves “think Upton has greater value in the trade market” than Heyward, in part because “right-handed power” is the trendy over-used buzzword of the season. Dave Cameron replied to that right here with a very good explanation of why Upton really shouldn’t be worth more than Heyward, and it’s part of the reason I didn’t include Heyward in these charts, despite being another outfielder with one year left on his contract — he’s younger and he’s better.

The thing is, we’ve been through this before with Upton.  23 months ago, the Mariners reportedly agreed to send Walker, Nick Franklin, Charlie Furbush, and Stephen Pryor to Arizona for three seasons of Upton, though the deal never happened because Upton invoked his no-trade clause (which now includes only the Cubs, Brewers, Blue Jays, and Indians.)

Here’s how that was viewed at the time:

In the aftermath of the news, sentiment seemed to coalesce around the idea that the Mariners were significantly overpaying for Upton. A front office friend of mine shared a similar sentiment, suggesting that giving up Walker and Franklin was too much for Upton.

It’s fair to note that Upton was coming off something of a down 2012, but even so, his value was higher then than it was today. Heading into only his age-26 season, there was more hope for breakout potential than there is now, and of course, teams will be looking to buy one season of Upton rather than three. At the time, Dave crunched the numbers and determined that Upton was worth around $40 million in surplus value. Now, depending on your inputs — I’m going to go with “3.5 WAR in 2015” and “$7 million per WAR” — he’s worth around a quarter of that in surplus value. (Give or take, as always.)

It’s difficult to assign a dollar value to prospects, though many have tried. The most-often quoted study suggests that $10 million is worth something like the 50th best pitching or hitting prospect in the game, which we can spitball as “back of the Top 100 overall.” Looking at MLB.com’s current Top 100, you’ll see names like Jake Lamb, Rafael Montero, Brandon Finnegan and Marco Gonzales — good prospects all, but not the elite return that some fans appear to be expecting. Where two years ago Upton was worth Walker and three others, today the Braves probably couldn’t get Walker alone for him.

There’s still teams that need a corner outfield bat, and that the Braves hold one of the best available options — though Marlon Byrd, Dexter Fowler, and Shane Victorino are still possibilities — should help their case. We know the Mariners need an outfield bat, and so do the Giants, Orioles, Reds, Rangers, etc. Even the Padres are reportedly interested, despite having Kemp.

The Braves can move Upton, and they’ll get back players who will do more to help the next good Atlanta team than Upton would. But they’re not likely to get back something extraordinary, either. One year of a good player who isn’t a star just doesn’t tend to get what people expect it should. Four years of Donaldson, who is a star, didn’t bring back what many people thought it would. Most star trades don’t bring back what people think they will. Cespedes, a very similar player, brought back a single year of Porcello, a good but far from great pitcher. Upton himself, after that failed Seattle deal, was traded for a disappointing return of Martin Prado and a few mid-level prospects, the best of whom (Randall Delgado) couldn’t hang on to a starting job.

There’s still plenty of reason to find a trade for Upton, given the path the Braves have set for themselves. It’d just be a good idea to set appropriate expectations first.

Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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Sandy Kazmir
9 years ago

The Kendrick and Samardzija trades shed considerable insight on what a return for a 3ish WAR player should be. You can have a mid-100 prospect (Heaney) straight up or you can diversify a bit and get six years of a guy that looks to be around league average, but probably a little short of that to start and a pu pu platter of other guys that don’t really portend a high ceiling nor floor.

I used these two as a basis for a potential Ben Zobrist trade because Ben profiles as a better player than any of these guys, including Upton, in the same exact control situation, but making half of what Upton will make this year and a few dollars less than the other cats. I think Ben has more value than any of these guys, but as long as there are plenty of substitutes on the market that probably doesn’t mean a whole lot. The Rays have a substantial track record of moving guys in this situation if they get something approximating what they’re looking for, but they may hold off until some other guys move around. The number of suiters may dwindle, but that should lead to a higher likelihood of one of the remaining teams meeting their demands.

Before signing Melky I thought that the White Sox made a ton of sense because the Rays can also throw in Matt Joyce and letting him platoon with Dayan Viciedo. That’s probably not happening now, but a team that has been doing what it takes still has a colossal hole at 2B and the resources to lock up a very good player on a reasonable deal following this year. Check it out if you have interest and a bit of time:


Feel free to delete if you think this is spam I just thought it was tangential to the topic which I enjoyed reading.

Nick C
9 years ago
Reply to  Sandy Kazmir

Kendrick is a good starting point for the discussion, because he’s likely to reject a qualifying offer next year, giving the Dodgers a compensatory pick. He’s also roughly the same WAR as Upton, though he certainly offers less power.

What was the Angels’ return on Kendrick? Andrew Heaney, who entered 2014 as the 30th best prospect in baseball and is likely hovering the 20th position entering 2015. I’d say it’s reasonable for the Braves to expect a prospect in the 20-30 range for Upton.

9 years ago
Reply to  Nick C

he’s unlikely to get a QO.

9 years ago
Reply to  CrazyPants

Especially because the Dodgers would not be hurt much if he accepts, lowering the drawback for them to make the offer.