With Kevin Towers back at the helm of a Major League franchise, we can be assured of one thing – he’ll create enough trade rumors to keep Tim Dierkes busy for life. If loose lips really did sink ships, Towers could take out an armada in a matter of minutes. Today’s rumor du jour is that the Diamondbacks will be willing to listen to calls for young right fielder Justin Upton. In reality, most every GM is willing to listen to calls for most every player on their roster, so this probably doesn’t mean anything. But, just for fun, let’s figure out what Upton might be worth if Arizona really did put him on the market.
Every discussion has to start with his age. He turned 23 in August, so most organizations still have highly regarded prospects older than he is, and yet, he’s already accumulated +7.7 WAR in what amounts to about three big league seasons. Even with his step back in 2010, he was an above major league right fielder at a time when most kids his age are trying to prove themselves in Double-A.
So, while we can dissect Upton’s strengths and weaknesses based on his big league performance to date, we have to keep his youth in mind. Most players who get to the big leagues as quickly as Upton turn out to be very good players, or even superstars. His potential is obvious.
However, there is a gap between what Upton could be and what he currently is. His blend of power and athleticism has allowed him to succeed despite a lack of contact, but if he’s going to make the leap to the next level, he’s going to have to figure out how to stop striking out so often. In fact, Upton is the only player in major league history to strike out 400 times by the end of his age 22 season.
Even if you lower the bar too 300 strikeouts at this point in a career, only Jose Canseco whiffed with anything approaching the same consistency – 24.6 percent of his plate appearances resulted in strikeouts, still trailing the 25.9 percent mark set by Upton so far. If you drop down to 200 strikeouts, you finally find three players with a higher strikeout rate than Justin Upton through age 22 – his brother B.J (26.3%), Sammy Sosa (26.3%), and Reggie Jackson (29.0%).
Those comparisons are a bit of a mixed bag. Canseco and Sosa have obvious clouds hanging over their heads, while the elder Upton hasn’t turned into the player that Tampa Bay was hoping for as of yet. Jackson is the guy who offers hope, as he got his contact problems under control in his mid-20s and developed into one of the best sluggers of all time.
Trading for Upton comes with a huge potential payoff, but reaching superstar status now looks a little less likely than it did a year or two ago. So, while a team acquiring Upton could hope for a big return, they’d also have to keep in mind that he might end up settling in as a good-not-great player. Let’s look at both scenarios and his estimated value for both over the next five years.
Good Player, Not A Superstar
2011 – +3.5 WAR, $17.5 million value, $4.25 million salary
2012 – +4.0 WAR, $20.8 million value, $6.75 million salary
2013 – +4.5 WAR, $24.8 million value, $9.75 million salary
2014 – +4.5 WAR, $25.7 million value, $14.25 million salary
2015 – +5.0 WAR, $30.0 million value, $14.5 million salary
Total: +21.5 WAR, $118.7 million value, $49.5 million salary
That puts Upton at about $70 million in surplus value over what his contract will pay him between 2011 and 2015.
Upton Becomes Elite
2011 – +4.5 WAR, $22.5 million value, $4.25 million salary
2012 – +5.0 WAR, $26.0 million value, $6.75 million salary
2013 – +5.5 WAR, $30.25 million value, $9.75 million salary
2014 – +6.0 WAR, $34.25 million value, $14.25 million salary
2015 – +6.5 WAR, $39.0 million value, $14.5 million salary
Total: +27.5 WAR, $152.0 million value, $49.5 million salary
In the best case scenario outcome, Upton is worth over $100 million beyond what he’ll be paid by the time he reaches free agency. This is the Reggie Jackson payoff, essentially. And this is why every team in baseball will at least be exploring whether Upton is priced to move or not.
These are not the only two outcomes, of course. He could regress (ZIPS lists his number one comparison as Danny Tartabull, for instance) or get injured. My expectations of continued salary inflation over the next five years could be wildly wrong. Teams will have to look at the broad spectrum of possible returns if they give up the farm to get Upton. However, given that he’s already a good player and wouldn’t need to improve much to be worth well more than his contract, and that he offers the upside to be among the best values in the game, the market for Upton is likely to be overflowing with interested teams.
And in the end, I expect Arizona will come to the realization that they should probably just hang onto their young right fielder.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.