NASHVILLE -- On Tuesday, a rumor briefly breezed through the Winter Meetings here involving a blockbuster centered around the Diamondbacks' Justin Upton and the Phillies' Cliff Lee, with perhaps as many as four teams involved. While a tantalizing possibility to contemplate, the idea was quickly debunked, with the Arizona Republic's Nick Piecoro estimating that it was "10 minutes before it was roundly shot down." A day later, Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal is among those suggesting that an Upton-related scenario involving the Diamondbacks, Indians, Rays and Rangers may be in play. While details about such a deal are scant beyond a few names, here's a quick look at what may be driving this for the aforementioned teams, with most of the players offering youth and multiple years of club control.
Upton is due $38.5 million over the next three years as part of a six-year, $51.25 million deal signed in 2010, and it often seems as if the Diamondbacks have been flirting with the possibility of dealing the 25-year-old star ever since. There were rumors in June that Arizona was talking to several teams leading up to the July 31 deadline before pulling back. The idea was renewed a few weeks ago, and while managing partner Ken Kendrick — who called Upton out in the middle of a slump — recently retreated by saying there was a high likelihood of him being part of the 2013 team, there is persistent buzz that he will not be.
Arizona's top need is at shortstop, with Stephen Drew having been traded to Oakland back in August before reaching free agency, and Willie Bloomquist, who took over after the trade, better suited to a utility role. The Braves' Andrelton Simmons, the Indians' Asdrubal Cabrera and either of the Rangers' Elvis Andrus or Jurickson Profar are shortstops on the D-backs' wish list, but Atlanta doesn't intend to move Simmons and Texas has indicated a reluctance to break up its pair. The Diamondbacks, who also have a wealth of blue chip pitching prospects, have discussed a two-team deal involving Trevor Bauer or Tyler Skaggs, both of whom had short but shaky stints in the majors last year that shouldn't detract from their long-term appeal.
Coming off a 68-94 season, their third below 70 wins in four years, the Indians are admitting that they're not as close to contention as they appeared to be in the early months of each of the past two years. Particularly given a thin market for shortstops, they're strongly considering dealing Cabrera, and expecting a high return, with the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Paul Hoynes reporting discussions of a scuttled deal involving a big league pitcher and two prospects. The Indians are in dire need of starting pitching after a year in which their starters ranked 13th in the American League in both ERA (5.25) and strikeouts per nine (6.1). After ranking 13th in scoring as well, they're also greatly in need of impact bats at leftfield, first base and DH. Cleveland got nothing higher than a .702 OPS from any of those three positions — which should be the easiest to fill from an offensive standpoint — last year.
As for Cabrera, the 27-year-old shortstop hit .270/.338/.423 with 16 homers in 2012, down from 25 homers in 2011; he made the All-Star team in both years. Various metrics differ widely on his defense and thus his overall value in those two seasons, with Ultimate Zone Rating seeing him as 21 runs below average across the two years (fairly evenly split), Fielding Runs Above Average at 16 runs below average (awful in 2011 but slightly above average last year) and Defensive Runs Saved at two runs below average, with a decline from +3 to −5 over the past two years; hence Baseball-Reference.com's WAR sees him as worth 7.6 wins in that span, FanGraphs' WAR at 6.7 and Baseball Prospectus' WARP has him at 4.4. Cabrera is signed to an affordable two-year, $16.5 million deal for 2013-2014.
Tampa Bay Rays
As has been reported several times, the Rays have tested the trade market for starting pitchers James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson, both of whom are under club control and would thus net significant returns along the lines of the package Tampa Bay got in exchange for Matt Garza from the Cubs via a 3-for-5 swap in January 2011. Shields, who turns 31 this month, will make $9 million in 2013 and $12 million in 2014 assuming his option is picked up, while the 25-year-old Hellickson doesn't become arbitration-eligible until after the 2014 season.
The Rays, who filled their shortstop need by trading for Yunel Escobar on Tuesday, still need offense and have openings at first base and centerfield given the free agency departures of Carlos Pena and B.J. Upton, but exactly whom they would target under this four-team scenario is unclear. Previously, they were known to have discussed a trade with Washington involving one of the aforementioned pitchers and Mike Morse, but that's outside the scope of this deal. One player from among the other three teams here who makes sense is Rangers centerfielder Craig Gentry, a righty who would fit into a collection of outfielders that includes Desmond Jennings, Brandon Guyer, Matt Joyce, Sam Fuld, the latter two of whom aren't effective against lefties. If Tampa Bay can solve that need cheaply via Gentry, it can spend money to sign a designated hitter.
The Rays are also known to like Bauer, who wouldn't improve the offense but would offset the loss of a starter.
The Rangers' key interests in this deal are Upton and Shields, though the likelihood of getting both is slim unless they move a whole lot of young talent. Upton would offset the potential loss of slugging centerfielder Josh Hamilton, though Texas has some renewed optimism about retaining him. Shields would curb the team's pursuit of Zack Greinke and enable it to focus more fully on retaining Hamilton.
The Rangers do have a coveted surplus of shortstops in the 24-year-old Andrus, who will make $11.3 million over the next two years before reaching free agency, and the 19-year-old Profar, who's considered the minors' top positional prospect, but that doesn't mean they're intent on dealing one. More likely to be traded is Mike Olt, a 24-year-old third baseman who hit .288/.398/.579 with 28 homers at Double-A before a stint with Texas. He's blocked by Adrian Beltre, who is signed through 2015, meaning Olt could shift across the diamond as a potential first base cornerstone for the Rays.
As for Gentry, he's a 29-year-old speedster who hit .304/.367/.392 in 269 plate appearances spread over 122 games last year. Manager Ron Washington often used him off the bench as a late-game replacement for lefty David Murphy, with Hamilton sliding from center to left, because Gentry tore up lefties (.343/.425/.434 in 115 PA), though the likelihood of him maintaining the .388 batting average on balls in play that drove that line is slim. Texas can afford to deal Gentry because of the presence of 24-year-old Cuban defector Leonys Martin, who tore up Triple-A (.359/.422/.610 in 260 PA) but struggled in his brief taste of the majors. The likelihood of these four teams all agreeing to a single blockbuster trade is slim, but each is capable of filling needs for at least one other team among the group. Thus, it's more possible that spinoff deals — perhaps involving other teams as well— emerge out of this framework.