While there's still a lot of the offseason left to play out, it appears that the Atlanta Braves are going to be near the top of that imaginary list of teams that dictated what happened. Their next potential move could be their biggest, as it may involve All-Star outfielder Justin Upton.
Unlike Jason Heyward, who was already traded to St. Louis, Upton's primary value lies in his bat. He's not a bad defensive outfielder, but teams are starved to find a young player who hit 29 home runs and slugged .491 last season.
It's not a surprise, then, that the reported asking price on Upton is greater than what the Braves wanted for Heyward, according to Joel Sherman of the New York Post. That's no small feat considering they got a pitcher under team control for four years (Shelby Miller) and a prospect who could have up to six years of control if he gets to the big leagues (Tyrell Jenkins).
Here is a look at the teams with reported interest in Upton, as well as how he would fit in with those clubs.
Of the potential destinations for Upton, the Oakland Athletics would seem to make the most sense based on recent events. Billy Beane pulled off a surprise move on Friday, via Jane Lee of MLB.com, trading All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson to Toronto for a package that has left a lot of people confused.
Not long after the Donaldson trade was announced, John Hickey of The Bay Area News Group reported the A's were talking to the Braves about a potential blockbuster involving Upton and Evan Gattis:
That wouldn't seem to be a deal that entices the Braves. Their strategy this offseason seems to be adding long-term assets so they are better equipped to compete when their new stadium opens in 2017. Miller and Jenkins fit into that plan because they aren't eligible for free agency for years.
If Jeff Samardzija is the return piece in a package for Upton and Gattis, it shoots that theory down because The Shark is due to become a free agent after 2015.
The A's are limited in what they can do because of the way they emptied their farm system last year to acquire Samardzija and Jason Hammel from Chicago. Addison Russell and Billy McKinney were Oakland's top two prospects entering 2014, according to Baseball America.
As a result, the Athletics have to trade MLB pieces. They did it last July by moving Yoenis Cespedes for Jon Lester. They did it in the Donaldson trade, though that did give them some minor league depth. Perhaps that was a precursor move to make a deal for Upton happen.
It's hard to know what Oakland is thinking right now because its biggest problem in the second half last year was scoring runs. The A's scored 263 runs in 67 games after the All-Star break in 2013, via Baseball-Reference.com.
Trading Donaldson, who led the A's with 29 homers and isn't eligible for free agency until after 2018, would suggest Beane wants to start rebuilding the roster. That would allow him to use a player like Samardzija to acquire multiple young, controllable pieces instead of Upton, who is only under contract through 2015.
San Francisco Giants
The Giants are going to look different next season with Pablo Sandoval joining the Boston Red Sox. They need to upgrade their offense without Panda, so Upton would make sense for the World Series champions.
However, just going by Jon Heyman's report on CBSSports.com, it doesn't sound like the Giants are exhausting their efforts to get Upton at this moment:
The Giants, champions three of the past five years, are thinking small and very big, as word is they've cast a wide net, initiating talks regarding several star players, including not only players who could fill obvious needs such as Justin Upton, Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis,Torii Hunter, Chase Headley and Tomas, and presumably also Jay Bruce and others, but also the two biggest starting pitchers -- Jon Lester and Scherzer.
Upton likely wouldn't be a financial burden to the Giants. He's due to make $14.5 million next season, per Baseball-Reference.com. The Giants were making an offer to Sandoval in the range of five years, $91.5 million, according to a separate report from Heyman.
As was the case with Oakland, though, there comes the question of what Atlanta would potentially get in return for Upton. The Giants aren't going to trade Madison Bumgarner.
The rest of San Francisco's rotation isn't as attractive anymore, as Matt Cain wasn't the same pitcher in 2013-14 before having season-ending surgery. Tim Lincecum is best used out of the bullpen. Tim Hudson isn't good enough or young enough to build a package around anymore.
The Giants' system is lacking impact talent to entice much in a trade for a player of Upton's caliber. Andy Baggarly of Baseball America wrote about their group of prospects coming into 2014, calling the top of it "intriguing" but nothing special beyond that:
They have a few intriguing arms in the system now, a list headed by 2011 supplemental first-round righthander Kyle Crick. But too many of their recent high draft picks either don’t wow scouts with their tools or have moved through the minor leagues slowly as they struggle to make adjustments.
Of course, Giants general manager Brian Sabean is one of the best in the business. If he can find a way to make a deal happen and really wants to, it will.
There's just the question of how motivated Sabean is to do something that would only yield short-term results, especially with an outfield that's already crowded with Hunter Pence, Gregor Blanco and Angel Pagan.
For the second time in as many years, the Seattle Mariners are reportedly trying to land Upton in a trade. According to Jon Morosi of Fox Sports, Upton is one of several right-handed hitting outfielders the Mariners have looked into acquiring:
Unlike the A's and Giants, the Mariners do have prospects to deal that would be enough to entice the Braves. While 2014 first-rounder Alex Jackson isn't going to be dealt, Seattle could work a package built around Taijuan Walker and minor league outfielder Gabriel Guerrero.
Last year, Arizona had a potential deal with Seattle for Upton that would have included Walker, but Upton used his veto rights to reject the move, per Heyman:
Walker's stock seems to be down. ESPN's Keith Law noted in an interview with Brady Henderson of ESPN Radio 710 in Seattle last July that Walker's mechanics have changed dramatically and not for the better:
Law said the most notable differences in Walker's delivery are a shortened stride, a more upright finish and an earlier release. He added that Walker's curveball isn't what it was when he made three starts during a September call-up last season.
"I was disappointed last night," Law said. "I was hoping we were going to to see a looser, more flexible delivery and I was hoping we were going to see a better curveball than that. But if anything the curveball was worse last night than it was in his big-league debut last September."
However, we are still talking about a pitcher who is 22 years old and was widely regarded as a top-10 prospect coming into 2014. A change of scenery and working with a new pitching coach could be just the thing to build Walker back up.
Since the Braves will want more insurance for Upton, not to mention their need to add bats to their system, Guerrero is listed as Seattle's No. 3 prospect by MLB.com and gets praise for his potential with the lumber:
He has very good raw tools, including the ability to hit for average and power, though the latter hasn't shown up in games consistently yet. Guerrero is an aggressive hitter, but like his uncle, he tends to make contact more than you think he should -- though some refinement would allow him to tap into that power more.
Guerrero runs fairly well, and he has about as strong an outfield arm as you'll find in the Minor Leagues.
(For the record, Guerrero is the nephew of Vladimir Guerrero.)
This potential deal would give the Braves a pitcher under control through 2020 and a young hitter who could plug into the lineup by the start of 2016.
The Mariners are still searching for offense. Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager make a nice duo to build around, but it takes more than two players to get into the upper half of the MLB in runs scored. They were 19th last year.
If there is a deal to be consummated for Upton, the Mariners seem to have the best chance of acquiring him. Their immediate need is greater than the other top contenders, and they have the pieces to get it done. All that remains is putting the particulars together and getting Upton to sign off on it.
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