At some point soon, perhaps before Spring Training starts, Justin Upton may don the jersey of a Major League team other than the Arizona Diamondbacks for the first time. If so, that club will have acquired one of baseball's most valuable commodities: a young veteran with a reasonable contract who has already displayed virtually every skill that an outfielder can possess. Upton has hit for average and power. He's shown speed and the ability to get on base. He's played quality defense and has an impressive throwing arm. He's under contract for the next three years for a total of $38.5 million. Even coming off a down year, Upton is one of the most valuable commodities in the game. Conventional baseball wisdom says that it's just about impossible for a club to win a deal in which it sends away a player who fits that description. And yet, indications are that the D-backs aren't just listening to offers for the 25-year-old slugger, they're actively shopping him.
On the record, of course, that's not the case. D-backs officials have consistently maintained that they are not shopping Upton, and that's the smart thing to say. "Other teams have been informing the media that they are inquiring," team president and CEO Derrick Hall said in a recent MLB.com chat with fans. "We are always going to listen and have conversations about our players if we think we can improve as a team now and in the future. All of the media speculation is unfortunate, but not unusual." Yet, it was later that very day when reports surfaced that Arizona had agreed to a deal that would have sent Upton to the Mariners for an impressive package of young talent. Seattle, however, is one of four clubs on Upton's limited no-trade list, and he blocked the deal. The clubs never confirmed the agreement, it's worth noting, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen. Earlier in the winter, it appeared that moving Upton was a means to an end for the D-backs -- something they were willing to do if it brought them the right return. More and more, though, it looks like an end unto itself. When rumors of a potential Upton trade first surfaced this offseason, the desired return was always believed to be a cornerstone shortstop. Atlanta's Andrelton Simmons and Texas' Elvis Andrus and Jurickson Profar were most often mentioned. But then Arizona went out and got a shortstop. Two, actually -- Cliff Pennington from the A's for the short term and Didi Gregorius from the Reds for the near future. Now there really aren't any obvious weaknesses on the D-backs. They aren't a flawless team, but there isn't that one gaping hole that needs to be filled -- not one obvious need that could be addressed by moving Upton. They could use an everyday third baseman, and any team would benefit from added pitching depth, but Arizona is essentially set. That was reflected in the haul they reportedly would have gotten from the Mariners -- a package of prospects topped by pitcher Taijuan Walker and infielder Nick Franklin. Take a moment to ponder that, because it's a bit odd and quite telling. A team with serious aspirations of contention, a team just one year removed from 94 wins and a division title, agreed to move its No. 3 hitter in a trade in which it would receive virtually no significant immediate help. That No. 3 hitter, by the way, is signed for three years at a very reasonable rate -- certainly less than he'd make if he were on the open market as a free agent. A team built to win now, with no major financial pressures, agreed to trade a 25-year-old with a top-four MVP finish on his resume -- for prospects. Admittedly, they were excellent prospects. But that doesn't change the fundamental issue. In the overly simplistic language normally used around the time of the non-waiver Trade Deadline, a team in position to be a buyer was acting like a seller. The thing is, by now it seems there may not be much of a choice. Arizona's front office has made it clear by its actions, if not its public statements, that it prefers to go forward without Upton. It wouldn't be impossible to open camp in Scottsdale, Ariz., with Upton on the roster, but it wouldn't be ideal. By this point, it wouldn't be surprising at all if the player himself would prefer to get it over with and move on to another club. It even appears that the D-backs have acquired Upton's replacement. They signed free agent Cody Ross to a three-year contract in December, adding an outfielder to a team that already had a glut of them. Perhaps the D-backs deal Jason Kubel instead. Perhaps they finally make the categorical, unequivocal statement that makes it clear that Upton isn't going anywhere. But until and unless one or both of those things happen, it seems that the Arizona Diamondbacks are heading toward making one of the more unusual trades in recent memory.
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.