Why Braves fans can hold the applause on the Upton trade — for now

It would take some kind of contrarian not to like the Braves’ acquisition, by trade or alleged fleece, of Justin Upton.

Which means you’ve come to the right outpost in the Internet universe.

I resolved, as soon as the pundits raised the Braves’ right hand, tomahawk and all, to see the D’backs’ point of view (if victors in regular-season games were determined as quickly as they are in offseason deals, no one would be complaining about the length of Red Sox-Yankees games). By the instinctive reaction, to paraphrase Springsteen, to see it you would have to look hard.

The D’backs, by acclamation, were voted the team most likely to think $24 of trinkets was too much for the island of Manhattan.

Braves outfielder, and Upton’s new teammate, Jason Heyward, tweeted that he was “waking up to Christmas in January.” Which makes Martin Prado what exactly? One of the reindeer?

Years ago, in one of his Baseball Abstracts, Bill James wrote about the perception of talent, and how Kansas State basketball coach Tex Winter seemingly won without it. James’ conclusion, if I’m remembering correctly, is that what Winter perceived as talent wasn’t always what the preponderance of his peers did.

Some of the same qualities are in play with the Upton trade: potential vs. production, fantasy vs, reality.

The Braves and their fans are celebrating a five-tool player at every outfield position; they would do well to remember tool is also slang for a word it rhymes with: fool.

This is not to delegitimize Upton or his talent. It’s also not to say I would have declined the deal. I wouldn’t. But Braves fans might do well to remember that potential isn’t always realized — think Jeff Francoeur — and trades aren’t always as one-sided as they seem — think Nate McLouth.

Here’s four reasons the Upton trade may not be all it appears for the Braves.

  • Prado has been a better player two of the last three years. This is inarguable, though I can’t wait to hear Chip Caray start spinning on TV like Lonnie Smith rounding second, faulting Prado and overlooking Upton’s 120 strikeouts a year. Prado had a higher OPS, WAR and average in 2010 and 2012, Upton in 2011. Prado’s value is enhanced by his position in the infield, just as Upton’s will be diminished by his in left. Two caveats: Prado is 29 and Upton 25, which means the latter is far more likely to improve in the next five years; Prado is signed for this year only and Upton for three years. Prado can start talking contract with the D’backs as if he were hitting with a 2-0 count; the latter can ill afford to watch Upton bloom after Prado has departed.
  • Prado was the Braves’ third baseman; now it will apparently be a platoon of Chris Johnson, acquired with Upton, and Juan Francisco. Johnson will play vs. left-handed pitchers, a plan which has only one problem: he can’t hit them. Johnson’s career OPS vs. lefties is .667; vs. righties it’s 108 points better. Asking Johnson to hit lefties is a little like putting the late Pascual Perez in charge of navigation: the Braves are asking him to do something he historically has been unable to. Francisco can hit righties, when he’s making contact. Which isn’t often. Francisco fans so frequently he makes the Uptons looks like contact hitters. So far, he’s fanned five-and-a-half times for every walk, which is better than his minor-league pace, when he fanned not quite six times for every walk. Johnson fanned 132 times last year in 80% of a season. Between the two, the Braves might have 200 strikeouts at third base; with 300 strikeouts of Uptons, they’re well on their way to leading the NL in Ks.
  • With the trade, the Braves are liable to be worse in 2013 at two positions: left field, where Upton will have to revert to 2011 form to equal Prado’s 5.4 2012 WAR, and third base, where it’s hard to believe the Johnson-Francisco platoon will equal one Chipper Jones (a 2.7 WAR in 2012).
  • The Braves are crowing that they now have two Uptons, but there are plenty of Rays fans who think one is too many. The Uptons may have five-tool talent. Too bad one of the tools isn’t maturity. Justin’s former manager, Kirk Gibson, said their manager-player relationship reminded him of his own player-manager relationship with Sparky Anderson. “I had some things that happened with my manager Sparky Anderson over the years where maybe we butted heads a little bit and I didn’t agree with him,” Gibson said, “but when it was all said and done it all made sense, and it was for me to become a better person and a better ballplayer. I would say similar things have happened with me and Justin. I know he respects me, and I respect him.” Which misses the point by as much as Upton misses so many pitches. Whatever Anderson’s problems with Gibson, Sparky didn’t trade him the way Gibson did Upton. Because nothing confirms Gibson’s respect for Upton like the D’backs’ winter campaign to trade him, and the eventual deal. Gibson didn’t leave Detroit until the employee was ready; Upton left Arizona when the employer was. That’s a noticeable difference.
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