Upton For Andrus: Who Wins?

Stop me if you’ve heard this before; the Diamondbacks are listening to offers for Justin Upton again. These aren’t even just courtesy phone calls to check in on his availability, or speculation from other teams about his availability – Kevin Towers flat out confirmed that he’s in trade negotiations with other teams about his star right fielder.

“I’m open-minded and I’m going to listen to what people have to say,” he said. “If a deal presents itself that makes the Diamondbacks better, I think I need to be open-minded. The last two years, there has not been a deal that we felt made us better. That’s why we’ve retained him and we’ve kept him.”

“He will not be an easy guy for us to move. I think we’ve said it’s probably unlikely we end up doing something with him, but if somebody is willing to step up and we think it’s a deal that’s going to make the Diamondbacks better next year and going forward, we’ll talk about trading him.”

When you keep making a player available every winter, the differentiation between “shopping” and “listening” becomes meaningless. And so, with Upton back on the market, the search for a logical trade partner has once again brought the Texas Rangers back into the rumor vortex.

In that same piece, Nick Piecoro notes that Upton is not going to be traded for prospects, and he’d want an everyday player or frontline pitcher back in return, and by everyday player, he basically means shortstop or third baseman, as the rest of the D’Backs line-up is full. The Rangers are probably the only team in baseball that has a surplus of Major League ready players at both SS and 3B, so they seem to be the most natural trading partners for the Diamondbacks. Texas isn’t moving Adrian Beltre or Jurickson Profar, so a deal with the Rangers would almost certainly have to be centered around Elvis Andrus.

So, let’s break down Andrus and Upton, and figure out whether this is a move that actually works for both sides.

Name Age Team Control AAV 10-’12 WAR
Justin Upton 25 3 13 12
Elvis Andrus 24 2 6 11

In terms of overall performance, they’re actually pretty similar, with both settling in as +3 to +4 win players, and both are young enough to have upside for more growth. It wouldn’t be a surprise if either became a legitimate +5 win player, though that’s probably a bit more likely for Upton, since Andrus’ defense is likely to get worse, not better, as he gets older. These are unquestionably two of the better young players in baseball, and it’s not clear that one is definitively better than the other right now. In terms of just straight up production, an Andrus for Upton swap is close to fair.

Of course, nothing is ever just straight up production. Contracts present an opportunity cost as well, and if the Rangers are watching their pennies, the extra $7 million per year could push the needle in Andrus’ favor. Of course, Upton also has an extra year of team control, which moves the needle back towards the middle. Since the gap in salaries between 3/38 and 2/11 is $27 million over the life of the contracts, its hard to say that Upton’s contract is a significant advantage. The extra year is nice, but so is keeping your financial flexibility in tact, especially if you’re looking at getting into a bidding war over Zack Greinke.

So, the contracts don’t provide a big advantage for one side or the other, the production is similar, and they’re at similar points in their career. For Arizona, the appeal of this move seems obvious. Even after acquiring Cliff Pennington, they believe they’re more in need of a shortstop than an outfielder, and swapping Upton for Andrus would essentially be a lateral move that reduced their payroll in the short term. Given that they’re apparently ready to move on from the Justin Upton era, getting a similarly valuable young player with a team friendly contract back at a position of need is about as good of a deal as they could hope for.

For Texas, though, it doesn’t make as much sense. Yes, they have Jurickson Profar ready to step into Andrus’ departed role if they make the trade, but Andrus isn’t blocking Profar in a way that makes it impossible for them to extract value from them both. They have the option of playing Profar at second base and moving Kinsler to the outfield, so the trade is more about who plays where then who plays at all.

Scouts have never liked Kinsler’s defense as much as defensive metrics, and at age 30, he’s likely to begin losing some of his defensive value pretty soon. Add in the career high 18 errors he made a year ago, and it probably wouldn’t be that tough of a sell to have Kinsler transfer to the OF. The Rangers can already give Profar a full-time job and fill their OF hole at the same time without having to make a trade to do it. If they believe that Kinsler could be a better defensive OF than 2B going forward, than they’d have to believe that Upton is going to significantly outperform Andrus in order to make the deal an actual upgrade.

If you think 2011 is the real Justin Upton, then this probably a deal Texas should make, as they’d be buying low on a potential superstar. However, he showed just average power in both 2010 and 2012, and average power from a corner outfielder who strikes out a decent amount isn’t usually the foundation for a true superstar. The flashes of greatness are tempting, and his ceiling is higher than Andrus’, but his floor is also lower and he comes with a higher price tag.

If Arizona wants to sweeten the deal a little bit, sending back a guy like Pennington as well to restock the team’s middle infield depth, then this is probably a trade that starts to make sense for Texas. But if Kevin Towers wants Andrus straight up, or even Andrus+, I think Texas is better off standing pat. They don’t need Upton to fill out their outfield, and they don’t need to trade Andrus to create a job for Jurickson Profar. They’re the ones with leverage here. Andrus for Upton+ is worth thinking about. Less than that, though, and they should probably pass.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Mr Punch
9 years ago

What on earth is Towers up to? He keeps dangling Upton but never seems to make clear how serious he is about making a trade or what he’s really looking for in return. Then he’s surprised that Upton doesn’t seem as enthusiastic and productive as he used to be. This is beginning to seem like utter ineptitude.

9 years ago
Reply to  Mr Punch

Maybe he’s taking advice from David Glass or Dayton Moore.

9 years ago
Reply to  Mr Punch

Agreed. I don’t see the utility of his picking on Upton all the time.

9 years ago
Reply to  Mr Punch

You can only trade him once; so long as waiting doesn’t diminish his trade value, he’s smart to take his time and get the right return.