As the Arizona Diamondbacks scuffle along with the All-Star break approaching, the thoughts of fans of the team are turning a bit from focusing solely on the action on the field. This shift of perspective has little to do with the abominable play the team has exhibited as of late, and more so to do with the impending trade deadline, which is about three weeks away on July 31st.
The Diamondbacks are usually quiet around that time of year, preferring to make their deals during the off-season for the most part, but this year could be different. It still isn’t clear whether they will try to add pieces or sell off assets to rebuild for next year, but one thing is for certain: a bigger name than anyone could have previously anticipated could be on the move, and the face of the franchise may just change along with it.
Outfielder Justin Upton, who has been struggling mightily with the bat as of late, has come under fire in several instances recently with the team. One such incident occurred at the beginning of June, when manager Kirk Gibson benched him for several games in a row in an effort to his head screwed back on straight. The team’s Managing Partner Ken Kendrick criticized Upton on a local radio show, calling him an “enigma” and said that it was time for the outfielder to play at a more consistent level.
The pair exchanged text messages, and the whole incident eventually blew over, but Upton was again in the headlines for the wrong reason earlier this week when asked about the fans at Chase Field booing him on Wednesday night when he faltered in the bottom of the ninth inning, ending a Diamondbacks comeback and sending them to a fifth straight loss.
“You know what? To be honest with you, I don’t care anything about what the fans think of me,” Upton said of the boo birds in Phoenix. “My teammates, my coaches, they know I come in here and I bust it every single day. I come in here and try to do everything I can to help this team and my teammates have my back.”
This kind of language may be true in every way, as players realistically should not let the mood swings of their fan base affect the way they approach their jobs, but Upton’s choice of words was largely wrong. It isn’t a smart move to make sure it’s clear you don’t care about fans’ opinions, because it can only serve to increase scrutiny. The more intelligent alternative for Upton would have been to say something along the lines of “I can understand why the fans were upset, but to be honest, I’m out there giving it my all, so as long as I know that’s the case, then that’s all I can do.”
With that type of statement, it gets the point across that Upton is trying and that he is also acknowledging the boos without making some grandiose statement that he will try to do better without alienating the fan base. It’s diplomatic and sounds a bit rehearsed, but it’s a much better road to take than angering folks.
With these things defining Upton’s season thus far, the question really does become this: would the Diamondbacks really consider shipping him out of town if they fall out of contention? According to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, that’s EXACTLY what the team will do in the coming weeks if they aren’t thinking they will be able to come back in the division race.
Of course, it would take a massive haul of talent for the Diamondbacks to actually send Upton packing, but the real question is whether they should. On the plus side, it would get rid of his distracting presence in the clubhouse, and that can’t be overlooked with the ship that Gibson tends to run in Phoenix. It is a very serious team-first mentality in there, and to have a guy in the news more for his team owner bad mouthing him and criticizing fans isn’t exactly part of the Tao of Gibby.
In addition, Upton’s contract would be very easy to shed, being at a rate of less than $10 million per season through the end of the 2015 season. With a player who can potentially play at an All-Star level, that is a pittance, and teams might line up if they feel like he is an asset that can be acquired for a stretch run to the playoffs.
Unfortunately for the Diamondbacks, there is only one message that is going to ring loud and clear if they deal Upton, and that is that not only is the front office willing to capitulate to malcontents, but that they are pretty much kicking the ball downfield on being a legitimate World Series contender. You can have all the talent in the farm system that you want, but when push comes to shove, there isn’t another Justin Upton in their system, so they would be likely screwing themselves out of playoff contention not only this season, but also for seasons to come as well.
In addition, there is little chance that a team would be willing to part with the kind of package required to get a guy like Upton. With the fact that he is under contract for so long, the Diamondbacks are under no pressure to deal him for fear of losing him for nothing, like the Phillies are with Cole Hamels, for example. That means that the asking price would be astronomical, involving several highly-rated prospects, perhaps an expiring contract or two, and help at positions like third base where the talent pool is relatively thin throughout baseball.
With all of these things in mind, the best strategy at this point would be to simply hold on to Upton for the time being, and look into dealing other players before the 31st comes and goes (we will have our own thoughts on who should be on the trading block in the coming days). Upton simply is too valuable to this team to let go, no matter what distractions he is adding to the locker room, because when he is on his game, there are few players in the league who are better than he is.
That kind of game-changer is a once in a lifetime thing for a franchise, and the Diamondbacks had better get back the mother of all packages if he is put on a plane for greener pastures. How Kevin Towers and company handle this matter is going to define their regime in the desert in a more visceral way than pretty much anything else they have ever done, and it is definitely worth keeping an eye on for the next three weeks.