Justin Upton Trade Rumors: Would Rays Regain AL East Control with Blockbuster?

Ian Casselberry@iancassMLB Lead WriterNovember 12, 2012

The Tampa Bay Rays don't typically get involved in the bidding for top free agents. But could they be looking at improving their roster through a blockbuster trade?

According to the Tampa Bay Times' Marc Topkin, Rays general manager Andrew Friedman may be looking to make an aggressive move early in the offseason rather than waiting to see how the market plays out, as the team has in the past.

During last week's GM meetings in California, the Rays looked at the possibility of acquiring outfielder Justin Upton from the Arizona Diamondbacks. Interestingly, this would take place as Upton's brother, B.J., departs Tampa Bay via free agency. 

The D-Backs reportedly want a shortstop in return for Upton and have attempted to arrange a deal with the Texas Rangers for either Elvis Andrus or top prospect Jurickson Profar. However, the Rangers say they're not interested in dealing either player, which forces Arizona GM Kevin Towers to look elsewhere.

Tampa Bay has a strong shortstop prospect in Hak-Ju Lee. This season with Double-A Montgomery, Lee finished with a .261 average, .696 OPS and 37 stolen bases in 46 attempts. Baseball America ranked him as the Rays' No. 3 prospect this year. 

But with Elliot Johnson and Sean Rodriguez being the major league options at shortstop this season, the Rays likely want to hang onto their best shortstop prospect until he's ready. Besides, the D-Backs might want considerably more than Lee in return for Upton. 

That leaves starting pitching as an option. Arizona is loaded with young pitching prospects, Trevor Bauer and Tyler Skaggs among them. But a team can never have enough starting pitching, and the D-Backs might view James Shields or Jeremy Hellickson as the top-of-the-rotation starter they need. 

How would Justin Upton fit in with the Rays?

This past season, he hit .280 with a .785 OPS, 17 home runs and 67 RBI. That performance is presumably why the D-Backs consider him expendable. On this year's Rays team, Upton's home run total would have tied for fourth on the roster. His batting average would have been third on the team, with his OPS finishing fourth. 

But Upton's 2011 numbers are what make him enticing. He's one year removed from an MVP-caliber season in which he slugged 31 homers with 88 RBI, posting a .289 batting average and .898 OPS. He also accumulated 21 stolen bases. 

Of Upton's five full major league seasons, he posted MVP-level numbers in two of them. In 2009, he hit .300 with an .899 OPS, 26 home runs, 86 RBI and 20 steals. 

If Upton can put up those sorts of numbers again—and at 25 years old, there's no reason to think he can't—the Rays have a second MVP contender and middle-of-the-order run producer to pair with third baseman Evan Longoria.

Upton also has a team-friendly contract that surely appeals to the Rays. He's signed for the next three years for a total of $38.5 million. That might be more than Tampa Bay would like to pay ideally, but it's certainly less than whatever the team would have to pay for a comparable player in free agency. 

Would acquiring Upton put the Rays over the top in the AL East?

Tampa Bay finished five games out of first place in the division and wild-card races. Perhaps the biggest reason the Rays couldn't make the playoffs is because of a pea-shooter lineup.

Tampa Bay scored 697 runs this season, good for 10th in the 14-team American League. Compare that to the D-Backs, who scored 734 runs. That was the fourth in the NL. Obviously, Upton wasn't responsible for that run total by himself, but his 67 RBI would have been third on the Rays' roster, and his 107 runs scored would have led the team. 

Those are team-dependent stats, of course. And the Rays would be without B.J. Upton's offense in their lineup. But Justin's power and speed in the middle of the lineup would create more run production, and the Rays desperately need that. 

With a boost in offense to go with the Rays' outstanding pitching, it's not difficult to project that Tampa Bay could very well win the AL East next season or at least nab a wild-card bid. 

This season, the Rays allowed 577 runs—the fewest in MLB. With a team ERA of 3.19 and opponents' batting average of .228 and .646 OPS, the pitching is certainly in place to compete with the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox for a playoff spot. 

The staff might lose Shields or Hellickson in a deal with the D-Backs for Upton, but the team has the organizational depth to replace those pitchers with Chris Archer or perhaps Alex Colome. 

Without an offensive upgrade, Tampa Bay will likely find itself in a similar position as this season, even if the pitching is just as good. And the only way this team will get a player of Upton's caliber is through trade. 

Getting Upton would be worth the risk for the Rays, unless Arizona asks for a boatload of talent in return. 

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