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Should the Braves Go After Justin Upton?

Matt PowersCorrespondent IIDecember 26, 2014

Should the Braves Go After Justin Upton?

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    According to ESPN's Buster Olney the Braves are a potential fit for Justin Upton.

    The Diamondbacks seem to be more than willing to move the talented young outfielder, but since they could still win this year, they will want big league-ready talent to help immediately.

    That's exactly why the Braves are a fit as a trading partner for Upton. Olney points out that the Braves could build a package starting with Martin Prado as well as pitching. The Braves will also have some extra cash available to spend next year with Chipper Jones retiring, Derek Lowe's last $10M coming off the books and Michael Bourn being a free agent.

    This article takes a look at why the Braves should make a deal for Justin Upton and also why they shouldn't, followed by my own conclusion.

Yes, the Braves Need a Big Bat

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    The Braves have a solid lineup, but if there is one thing missing it is a true cleanup hitter.

    Brian McCann has spent plenty of time in that role, but isn't a true cleanup hitter even in his best years. Dan Uggla is a powerful hitter, but he isn't one either. Neither are Jason Heyward or Freddie Freeman, at least yet.

    Justin Upton may be better suited to be a guy that hits third, but he is a guy that wouldn't really be out of place hitting cleanup. Just looking at his career numbers proves he would be the best hitter on the roster if the Braves made a trade for him.

    Upton hit .300 with 26 homers and 86 RBI in 2009 at age 21. He followed that up in 2010 with a slightly down year, though he still managed to hit .273 with 17 homers and 69 RBI. Then he broke out last year and hit .289 with 21 homers and 89 RBI.

    Even in another down year this year, due to a thumb injury, he's at .273 with seven homers and 37 RBI. For his career the 24-year-old is hitting .276/.357/.477 while his averages per 162 games are 33 doubles, 24 homers, 82 RBI and 18 steals.

    Imagine a Braves lineup with Michael Bourn leading off followed by Jason Heyward, Upton, McCann, Uggla, Chipper Jones, Freeman and Andrelton Simmons. That is a lineup that could really produce large run totals, which is why a trade for Upton would be the type of deal that would instantly make the Braves among the favorites to make it to the 2012 World Series.

No, the Braves Cannot Afford to Lose Martin Prado

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    The key to a deal between the Diamondbacks and the Braves for Justin Upton would likely be Martin Prado. The Diamondbacks aren't getting much production from third base, while Prado would be capable of giving them solid production in the top part of the lineup.

    Giving up Martin Prado would be tough for the Braves. Not only is he hitting .321/.382/.457 with five homers and 37 RBI to go with 11 steals, but he has come up with numerous clutch hits. Prado spent the year batting second, and has been excellent in that role behind Michael Bourn. Taking his bat out of the lineup would slow the top part of the Braves lineup for sure.

    That isn't the biggest thing that makes me want to see Prado remain a Brave. With Chipper Jones set to retire at the end of the year the Braves are set to have a large hole at third base for next season. In a year without a strong crop of free agents, the Braves are going to need to put Prado at third next year since it's easier to find an outfielder that can give solid production than it is to find a third baseman.

    The loss of Prado would be huge for the Braves. It would slow the top of the lineup, which has been a major strength this year, require the Braves to find another third baseman for the 2013 season and also disrupt team chemistry. He is a key part of the Braves clubhouse.

Yes, the Future Would Be Bright

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    With Chipper Jones set to retire at the end of the year, Michael Bourn set to become a free agent and Brian McCann nearing free agency himself, a new era for the Braves lineup is on the horizon. While there are some pieces already in place, there are also some big question marks.

    However, a trade for Justin Upton would answer the biggest question there is.

    Upton is signed through the 2015 season, and although he will cost over $14M in both 2014 and 2015, that money could come from the portion of salary that now belongs to Chipper Jones. It's also a bargain for an elite hitter, especially one who will only be in his age-27 season in the final year of that contract.

    Upton would give the Braves one of the top young hitters in the game and would be part of the best young duo of the game along with Jason Heyward. Both Heyward and Upton are expected to be middle of the order run producers throughout the next three seasons. Each is a complete hitter who can hit for average and power, but also has enough speed to steal 20 bases in a season.

    That's not where the Braves young core would end.

    Shortstop Andrelton Simmons is already one of the top defensive players in the game, and he has been much better with the bat than anyone could have expected. First baseman Freddie Freeman also projects as a middle of the order run producer, though he isn't quite as talented as Heyward or Upton.

    Each of these players is under the age of 25. Upton is actually the oldest of the quartet at 25, while all three of the others are just 22. The potential this group would have as they grow together would be through the roof.

No, Upton Has Been Inconsistent and Injury Prone

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    One look back at the career of Justin Upton shows part of why he is expendable to the Diamondbacks.

    Similar to Jason Heyward, Upton is an amazing talent but has battled numerous nagging injuries already in his young career, which have made his numbers suffer at times.

    Upton's first full season in Arizona was 2008. He hit .250/.353/.463 with 15 homers and 42 RBI in 108 games.

    Overall those are fine numbers—especially since he was only 20 years old that year. However, he missed a game in April due to a hamstring injury, 43 games in July through August due to an oblique and three games in September due to a headache.

    Upton's career took off in 2009, as he hit .300/.366/.532 with 26 homers and 86 RBI. At age 21 he appeared to be a future superstar, but once again injuries bothered him. This time it was a game in June for a shoulder and 18 games in August due to another oblique injury.

    Upton struggled at the plate in 2010 as he hit just .273/.356/.442 with 17 homers and 69 RBI in a year where many had predicted a possible breakout season.

    Obviously the breakout didn't happen and his numbers regressed because of injuries. There was a hip in July that made him miss one game. Then he missed 23 games in September due to a shoulder injury that he really struggled to get over.

    Upton finally had his breakout year last year.

    He enjoyed the best season in his professional career when he hit .289/.369/.529 with 31 homers and 88 RBI along with 39 doubles and 21 steals. He also managed to stay healthy for a full season, as he only missed one game due to a head injury in September.

    This year has continued the pattern of injury and inconsistency, though. Upton is hitting .273/.353/.401 with seven homers and 37 RBI, and has really disappointed with his lack of power. That lack of power may be due to a thumb injury that has cost him three games, but appears to be bothering him since he hasn't had a chance to rest it.

    When he is on, Justin Upton is one of the best hitters in the game—as his 2011 season proves. However when he's not on, he frustrates the fans and organization as a whole.

    All injury data courtesy of SB Nation.

Conclusion

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    When thinking about whether the Atlanta Braves should pursue Justin Upton this year, there are a bunch of positives and negatives to consider. Upton is one of the bright young stars in the game, but there is also a reason why the contending Diamondbacks would deal a player signed through 2015.

    In the end, the main question is whether the Braves believe Upton can play left field, as both he and Jason Heyward are right fielders. To make the trade, the Braves need to know that they can get each of these guys in the lineup together.

    My final conclusion is that Arizona will deal Upton, whether it's before the deadline or during the winter. It's not often that a difference maker of this caliber becomes available, and with the Braves losing one of their own difference makers when Chipper Jones retires, they need to go after Upton now.

    The fact that the free agent class isn't very strong with hitters only provides more of a reason to try for Upton.

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