Justin Upton Shouldn’t Cost More Than Jason Heyward

Justin Upton is probably going to get traded. If you believe Joel Sherman’s source, there’s no probably about it; Upton is the next Brave out of town. And it makes sense; the team is clearly retooling for the future, while Upton is entering the final year of his contract. If the Braves don’t think they’re going to sign him long-term, better to trade him now than settle a compensation pick next year.

The question will be the price. Sherman reports that the asking price for Upton is going to be higher than the return they got for Jason Heyward, and that was already a pretty solid package. As I noted this morning, teams are paying through the moon for right-handed power right now, and so Upton will be an attractive option for teams looking to balance out their line-ups.

But even with the advantage of his handedness, I’d like to suggest that the price for Upton should be less than what St. Louis gave up for Heyward. And I promise, this isn’t another discussion of Heyward’s defensive metrics. I can make the point without even needing to cite UZR or DRS, because the offensive gap just isn’t as large as people think. Here are their respective lines over the past three seasons.

Name PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ BsR Off OFF/600
Jason Heyward 1,740 0.266 0.345 0.431 0.341 116 10.4 43.2 14.9
Justin Upton 1,912 0.271 0.350 0.462 0.354 124 9.2 60.4 19.0

Upton’s line is a little better, thanks to the power difference, but the resulting gap is pretty minimal: about four runs every 600 plate appearances. That’s not nothing, but it certainly doesn’t support the narrative that Upton is some kind of offensive star while Heyward is just a glove guy. And keep in mind, this isn’t really an apples-to-apples comparison, because the last three years compare Upton’s 24-to-26 seasons against Heyward’s 22-to-24 seasons. Heyward is at a younger point on the growth chart, and should have more expected improvement ahead of him, while Upton is probably getting pretty close to being a finished product.

That age factor is why Steamer actually projects Heyward as the better offensive player next year, giving him a forecast of +19.6 OFF/600, compared to +18.7 for Upton. A one run difference is nothing, of course, so if you wanted to put less emphasis on the age factor, you could argue in favor of Upton and be well within the realm of reason. But the point is that it’s probably closer than you’d think, given their 2014 numbers.

Even if we give Upton a significant boost for the handedness factor — and the differing treatment of Ike Davis and Billy Butler suggests we probably should — to account for the fact that the market is paying a premium for right-handed offense right now, we have to offset that by noting that Upton is set to make $14.5 million this year, $6 million more than Heyward. $6 million might not buy you any kind of star anymore, but it’s still some additional value that Heyward offered over Upton.

And, of course, there is a separation on defense. Even if you don’t believe in the range suggested by the metrics, pretty much everyone will admit that Heyward’s glove is quite a bit better. The Braves fans who filled out the Fan’s Scouting Report gave Heyward an 81 (out of 100), compared to a 41 for Upton. Even just using their career average numbers from the FSR — 73 for Heyward, 55 for Upton — there’s a legitimate gap there. Maybe you think defense isn’t worth all that much, but you can’t reasonably argue that it’s worth nothing.

Upton has been marginally better at the plate than Heyward throughout his career. He’s two years older. He’s more expensive. He’s worse defensively. Yes, it’s right-handed power, but it’s still a less valuable overall skillset. If the Braves can turn Justin Upton into another version of the Shelby Miller package, they should be pretty happy about it.

And perhaps the fact that the Braves are considering trading Upton and then using the savings to sign Yasmany Tomas should tell us something. Tomas, like Upton, has significant right-handed power, but doesn’t look like he’s going to provide a lot of value in other areas of the game. In Kiley McDaniel’s write-up on Tomas, he projected his upside thusly:

.275/.350/.480 with 25-30 homers, fringy defense & baserunning value in left field.

Justin Upton’s career batting line? .274/.354/.476, and he’s averaged 23 home runs per 600 plate appearances in his career. He was an above average baserunner in prior years, but as he’s gotten bigger, that seems to be diminishing, and he’s probably something like an average corner outfielder with the glove. In other words, Kiley’s forecast for Tomas’ upside is almost exactly Justin Upton.

Of course, Upton is a more known commodity, and so trading for him instead of signing Tomas provides a lower risk profile, which is worth something. But signing Tomas means you get more than one year of value, and the higher risk profile is going to get factored into his contract price; there’s almost no way Upton would sign for the same $70-$100 million price tags we’ve heard floated for Tomas. And, of course, you don’t have to give up any talent to sign Tomas.

Which is why it would probably be a pretty nifty little move for the Braves to trade Upton, open up a spot and cash for Tomas, and then use that to sign a younger/cheaper version of essentially the same skillset. Maybe Tomas won’t turn out to be as good as Upton. It’s likely he’ll have less 2015 value. There are reasons to prefer Upton, but those reasons don’t look strong enough to me to also surrender the kinds of significant young talent it took to get Heyward.

Upton’s a good player, not a great one. It’s one year of value, and it comes at a $15 million price tag. There are legitimate alternatives on the free agent market. Upton has value, especially to a team in win-now mode, but he shouldn’t cost what Jason Heyward cost. Any team that pays the Heyward price for one of year Justin Upton will likely end up regretting it.





Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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jeffersonianairplane
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jeffersonianairplane

I agree with you as far as current trade value given the difference in contracts, but what about when they both hit FA after next season? I would bet on Upton to get a higher AAV.

Dan Ugglas Forearm
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Dan Ugglas Forearm

My initial reaction, when I saw that the Braves were looking to get more for Upton than Heyward, was the extension angle. Obviously, there’s no guarantee that Upton will sign an extension wherever he’s traded, but I think it will be easier to work one out with him than it would be Heyward. Dave recently wrote that we can probably expect Heyward’s extension to, at the very least, be in the neighborhood of $200MM. But Upton will certainly sign for fewer years, and may even sign for less AAV. I think teams probably looked at Heyward as a surefire one year rental. But Upton, having already signed one big contract, and being a couple years older, is probably more likely to be extended by the acquiring club.

Anon21
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Anon21

I agree. The Cardinals paid for one year of a star player and a poor chance of signing him to a long-term deal during their exclusive negotiating window. It’s quite possible that the Braves know that Upton will be open to extending with his new club, and that that will be one piece of the negotiations.

And I agree with Dave’s view that Upton will end up with a shorter contract for a lower AAV, whether that comes as an extension or a free agent contract. People always forget about Heyward’s age…

JayT
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JayT

I don’t see any reason to think Upton would sign for any kind of discount. He’s going to be a 27 year old 3-4 win free agent. That’s going to get him paid. I don’t see any reason to think he’ll get less than someone like Jacoby Ellsbury.

Balthazar
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Agreed. I would expect zero probability that Upton will extend. Everything in his presentation for the last few years has pointed toward hitting the open market. And regarding extensions, two teams with significant investment tied up in him—high draft pick in AZ, major trade pieces given for him in ATL—who both got at least one very good season out of him have had collectively zero buzz about doing an extension. Maybe they were turned off for off field reasons, but it looks from the outside more as if Upton’s representation completely quashed the idea of an extension. The only way to extend Upton in my view would be with a huge premium contract, likely going to seven years. That’s not the smart move for a guy who has ALWAYS been good not great, but there are a lot of teams who think they’re smart and know they have the money.

Anyone acquiring Upton, and somebody will, should be expecting him to walk next winter, with a QA attached to at least net back a pick. While it’s not a fair comparison, consider what David Price brought back, and that was for one year plus one stretch run, far more service value from one of the best starting pitchers in the game. I don’t see Upton getting back anything like Price’s package, which by ‘more than Heyward’ seems to be what Atlanta thinks they can get somebody to cough up. A mid-rotation starter with 3+ years of service time would be about the ceiling, or a serviceable outfielder and a good not great starting pitching prospect. Those might be overpays frankly (although the QA pick takes the sting out), but aren’t unreasonable for some team in win-now mode.

It’s worth noting that everyone’s second favorite putative chump target in Jack Zd in Seattle both has a deep farm system of assets and a need for Upton even on a one year, making that org one obvious ‘pay me more’ target—but Jack Zd didn’t get chumped when Price got moved. Seattle paid fair value to get back a one-and-stretch outfielder they needed, who then didn’t perform at all. Think given that that Seattle is going to overpay for Upton? Someone may, but I don’t see it there; the offer should be no more than that deal, and frankly a little less given Upton’s 2015 cost, uninspiring D, and high probability of departure. Wouldn’t surprise me if the Yankees get in on this one though.

I think Upton’s shipping out may take awhile too unless Atlanta drops it’s price soon. Whoever is in on Tomas and Moncada but whiffs on both will see a lot more shine on Upton thereafter, and those two quasi-auctions may take some time to complete. We’re already to see some of those dropping out of those two bids making choices elsewhere for power, such as the ChiSox, for whom Upton would in many ways have been a real ‘org fit.’

Avattoir
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Avattoir

So –

Yes, indeed: see Jeffersonianairplane, for all your headline *correction* needs! Our motto is, YOU write ’em, YOU post ’em, they YOU sit back and relax, as WE fix ’em all up!
Wa- hold on a second…Breaking News! This just in from Missourida:
‘Justin Upton Shouldn’t Cost More Than *A* Just Heyward *Or So*’

jeffersonianairplane
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jeffersonianairplane

Did you have a stroke while you were typing this? I have absolutely no idea what you meant. None.