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Friday, January 25, 2013

Passan: Snakebitten? D’backs make peculiar decision to trade Justin Upton’s ‘superstar’ talent

As much as any baseball team in recent memory, the Diamondbacks on Thursday publicly embraced the idea of grittiness and guts, of the inherent and unquantifiable. And in doing so, they finished a two-trade whammy over the last six weeks that has seen them ship out their two most talented players in an effort to better embody this belief.

First went Trevor Bauer, the super-talented and cerebral pitching prospect who rubbed manager Kirk Gibson and some teammates the wrong way. And now [Justin] Upton, the super-talented and underproductive outfielder who was extremely well-liked by teammates but did not embody the dirt-on-the-uniform, all-out, get-concussed-or-go-home sort of player [manager Kirk] Gibson wants, because, in a flare of vanity, Gibson wants guys who play like he did, football in a baseball uniform…

The result is a fascinating experiment: a team stressing culture over talent. The Diamondbacks might say otherwise – [Martin] Prado is an All-Star and in both deals they got young and talented shortstops, one of the toughest things to find – but a consensus of scouts and sabermetric wonks agree: In both trades, Arizona sacrificed one for the other.

“Different clubs like to look for certain intangibles,” Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers said. “We like that gritty, grinder type. Hard-nosed. I’m not saying Justin isn’t that type of guy.”

Actually, he sort of was saying that. While Towers made sure to praise Upton, to say the Diamondbacks “never had to kick him in the rear to play,” he brought up body language. Towers is an old scout, and it is an old scouting trope – that slumping shoulders can tell all he needs to know about a player. Fluidity can be mistaken for bad body language, too, and the ease with which the game comes to Upton and other such gifted players can be mistaken for not caring. When the seed of that idea is already planted, it doesn’t take much for someone to germinate it.

“Sometimes people’s mannerisms and the way they carry themselves – they might not perceive him as the grinder type,” Towers said, and he used that word again. Grinder. It’s a baseball catch-all for players who make up for a lack of physical gifts with hard work and a willingness to do anything. It is also a word that baseball people almost never attach to black players. Maybe it’s because they see most black players as physically gifted to begin with. Perhaps it’s a subconscious bias borne of historic stereotyping. The Diamondbacks certainly don’t traffic in racism – they wouldn’t have built ad campaigns around Upton otherwise – but in outlining their philosophy for this team, they severely limit the sort of player who fits the system…

Towers has gone all-in shaping this team in the mold of his manager instead of forcing his manager to be malleable to the talent. Diamondbacks players love Gibson – not necessarily his obsessive detail as much as how much he hates losing, how he’ll come into a clubhouse and rant about the attitude or whatever else is on his mind and punctuate it with a simple pick-me-up: “Let’s go get ‘em today.”

Gibson, at the same time, is not Tony La Russa, the sort of manager with the cachet and gravitas to hand-select his roster. Gibson won a division title in his first full year. Then he went 81-81. And that is his résumé. Gibson may well end up being the best manager of his generation. Towers wants to do everything he can to make sure that’s the case.

Trading talent with perceived personal flaws rarely leads to such success. This does not make Gibson a bad guy for wanting a certain type of player. This does not make Towers stupid, not after a career of showing that he is indeed one of the game’s savvier GMs, the sort who has made what seemed like ill-conceived plans in the past work with aplomb. Because they contradict current convention does not fit them for a dunce cap.

It simply leaves them prone. The Diamondbacks dumped a player with superstar potential when they didn’t have to. They scoffed at the roads offered and cleared a new one with Grit Avenue and Guts Boulevard and Grind Parkway as side streets. They can only hope the ride is not as bumpy as it looks.

The District Attorney Posted: January 25, 2013 at 12:32 AM | 20 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: braves, diamondbacks, justin upton

Reader Comments and Retorts

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   1. RoyalsRetro (AG#1F) Posted: January 25, 2013 at 08:57 AM (#4354741)
did not embody the dirt-on-the-uniform, all-out, get-concussed-or-go-home sort of player [manager Kirk] Gibson wants

Seems like an unfortunate phrase in the wake of Ryan Freel's suicide and the controversies the NFL is going through.
   2. Rally Posted: January 25, 2013 at 09:25 AM (#4354761)

I don't think so. My guess is it was very intentional and a not so subtle mock.
   3. OMJ, urban D machine Posted: January 25, 2013 at 10:31 AM (#4354803)
This has always been Towers style, even before Gibson. See Byrnes, Eric. Gibson is just making it worse.
   4. Danny Posted: January 25, 2013 at 10:50 AM (#4354822)
This has always been Towers style, even before Gibson. See Byrnes, Eric.

See Byrnes, Josh.
   5. valuearbitrageur Posted: January 25, 2013 at 11:50 AM (#4354902)
Upton was the 2nd most valuable right fielder in baseball the last 4 years by fWAR (Zobrist ain't a RF), 5th the last 3 years, 3rd last two years.

Can you imagine how good he'd be if he cared? I mean cared enough to lift weights at the same time as Gibby, instead of spending hours in the batting cage working on his swing?

Can you imagine if he was a grinder how many games he would have played the last 4 years? I guess a grinder would have played more than 145 games a year even with the same injuries.
   6. The Interdimensional Council of Rickey!'s Posted: January 25, 2013 at 11:54 AM (#4354909)
It occurs to me that the Braves just traded for a RH Jason Heyward to play LF. This makes me happy.
   7. Matt Welch Posted: January 25, 2013 at 12:12 PM (#4354930)
This is a very good article, I think, but it doesn't leave any space for the not-insubstantial history of newish managers trading away All-Star talent to help create their own organizational culture, then achieving success afterward. Like Whitey Herzog dumping Ted Simmons (and later Keith Hernandez), or Scioscia/Stoneman getting rid of Jim Edmonds, or Francona/Epstein trading Nomar.

Re: the great observation about smooth non-white players getting tagged as lazy or indifferent, one of Scioscia's neat early tricks was basically pulling the rug out from under that once-common description of Garret Anderson.
   8. valuearbitrageur Posted: January 25, 2013 at 12:15 PM (#4354934)
Last 3 years according to FanGraphs

Upton .281/.361/.469 WOBA .359 wRC120 WAR fld11.1 bsr8.2 total11.9

Heyward .261
/.352/.447 WOBA .350 wRC118 WAR fld34.3 bsr10.8 total13.7 

Yea, it might be fun watching them play together every day. And the last 3 years include Upton's two injury season, coincidentally his 2 worst seasons in his last 4, so there is a reasonable chance Justin might be the better player going forward. Two years ago a healthy Justin did this...

Upton (age 23.289/.369/.529 WOBA .385 wRC139 WAR fld7.7 bsr4.5 total 6.4 
   9. Harveys Wallbangers Posted: January 25, 2013 at 12:31 PM (#4354951)

but whitey picked up other players who could play. jury is still out if arizona did that

it does appear that the trade was more about getting rid of someone than gaining someone

worked for billy beane in the case of jeremy giambi
   10. CFBF Rides The Zombie Ice Dragon Posted: January 25, 2013 at 12:44 PM (#4354956)
I will say this: Martin Prado is a darn good player. Not flashy, and he doesn't possess the upside of Upton, but a .300 hitter with doubles power and the ability to play capable defense at three positions is exceptionally valuable.
   11. akrasian Posted: January 25, 2013 at 01:00 PM (#4354967)
Yea, it might be fun watching them play together every day. And the last 3 years include Upton's two injury season, coincidentally his 2 worst seasons in his last 4, so there is a reasonable chance Justin might be the better player going forward.

Players who get injured are not gritty players though. They can't play for Kirk Gibson. Oh wait . . .
   12. aberg Posted: January 25, 2013 at 01:02 PM (#4354968)
If they extend Prado for 2-3 more years slightly below market (say, AAV $11m PA), I think they made a fair trade. I know the extension is technically a separate issue, but I do not think they made the deal in a vacuum. Still think the Bauer trade was bad.

The comments Towers made yesterday were total nonsense. I think he was trying to get his point across without taking TOO many potshots at Upton. As a result, he ended up saying things like "It wasn't that he didn't try hard, he just did a bad job making others see how hard he was playing." If the results are the same, why do you care? Are you really conceding that appearances outweigh performance?
   13. RoyalsRetro (AG#1F) Posted: January 25, 2013 at 01:04 PM (#4354969)

Upton was the 2nd most valuable right fielder in baseball the last 4 years by fWAR (Zobrist ain't a RF), 5th the last 3 years, 3rd last two years.

Yes, but what is his value by DIRT?
   14. Robert in Manhattan Beach Posted: January 25, 2013 at 01:05 PM (#4354970)
A non-white guy in baseball getting a rap that he's not trying hard enough and not a grinder (whatever the hell that means)? Wow, that never happens.

Maybe if he danced like Ray Lewis before every game he'd still be in Arizona.
   15. shoewizard Posted: January 25, 2013 at 04:56 PM (#4355128)
Well, apparently Towers and Gibson did not see the correlation between having a 6 WAR player and winning in 2011 and having a 2 WAR playing and not winning in 2012.

It's just so ironic that the primary reason Upton had a bad year is because he played through a thumb injury when he should have gone on the DL.
   16. Voros McCracken of Pinkus Posted: January 25, 2013 at 05:18 PM (#4355144)
One thing worth mentioning from a financial perspective is that Upton was the current face of this franchise: IE most common jersey at games and so on. So who is that going to be now? Miguel Montero maybe?

It just doesn't seem to me that any of this was gone about the right way by the DBacks. Even if you privately feel that Upton's "promise" is far in excess of what he's ever going to deliver, it would seem to me to be better to keep that to yourself than air that stuff publicly as happened last year. Can't help a player's trade value if the other teams know you're backed into a corner and have to move him.
   17. Tim D Posted: January 25, 2013 at 06:00 PM (#4355164)
Gibson still has the football player mentality. He would love Ray Lewis. This will be his downfall as a manager, favoring hustle guys over people who can actually play. There are any number of guys he would have happily run out of town if he had them, white, black, hispanic or otherwise. He probably wouldn't have been too happy with Babe Ruth's schtick. If Bauer doesn't have Clemens or Schilling or Morris intensity then he's a slacker. Gibson will be gone in two years and will be lucky to get another job. I was at Michigan State when Gibson was there, was in Detroit most of his career, moved to So Cal when he was there. I have followed him closely. Towers will last a couple more years and this will be his last gig. What they have done to this franchise is a joke. Prado is a nice player and Delgado has some upside but they got zero star potential in a trade for a 25 year old 5 tool RF who finished 4th in the MVP race a year ago. That is awful. And they did it to themselves, telegraphing to the whole industry that they were unhappy with their best players. They made their bed..............
   18. Pat Rapper's Delight (as quoted on MLB Network) Posted: January 25, 2013 at 06:12 PM (#4355176)
It occurs to me that the Braves just traded for a RH Jason Heyward to play LF. This makes me happy.

But should that make him 1 of my 3 fantasy keepers? Is he poised for a big year in a place that wants him, reunited with his brother, and (perhaps most importantly) over the thumb injury?

My other two keepers will be Trout and Harper.
   19. spike Posted: January 25, 2013 at 08:34 PM (#4355226)
He's going to be in the middle of a pretty good hitting side, if McCann and Uggla do anything.

According to Fredi, the proposed lineup is

SS Andrelton Simmons
RF Jason Heyward
LF Justin Upton
C Brian McCann
CF B.J. Upton
1B Freddie Freeman or 2B Dan Uggla
2B Dan Uggla or 1B Freddie Freeman
3B Chris Johnson or Juan Francisco
   20. Crosseyed and Painless Posted: January 25, 2013 at 09:30 PM (#4355246)
My other two keepers will be Trout and Harper.


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