In his first game back in Arizona, Justin Upton
hit a home run and celebrated with his brother B.J. (No. 2). (Getty Images)
Traded away by the Diamondbacks in the winter's most controversial deal, Justin Upton gave his old team and its fans a reminder of what they're missing in his return to Phoenix on Monday night. The 25-year-old outfielder snapped out of a brief slump with a four-hit game, including a monster two-run homer off Wade Miley that traveled an estimated 440 feet to centerfield:
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Upton's sixth-inning homer broke open a 3-1 game that the Braves went on to win 10-1. The blast, his first in 14 games, was his MLB-high 13th of the year. At the rate Upton is going, it's quite conceivable that he could match last year's 17 homers by Memorial Day.
That underwhelming 2012 showing, accompanied by a .280/.355/.430 line, is what made the Diamondbacks decide — to the shock of much of the baseball world — that they'd rather bet against him reaching the high ceiling that led them to pick him first overall in the 2005 draft, and that has invoked comparisons to future Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. Traded to the Braves in a seven-player deal on Jan. 24, Upton, it seems, is rubbing the Diamondbacks' decision in their faces. Along with the homers, he's hitting .289/.395/.644, with the league's top slugging percentage, and a top 10 Wins Above Replacement total (2.0, according to Baseball-Reference), and he's doing it for a first-place club. Though they've cooled off considerably from their 12-1 start, the 22-16 Braves remain a game ahead of the Nationals in the NL East, with a record and +30 run differential that both rank third.
The other player the Braves acquired in that deal, Chris Johnson, has been helpful as well, hitting .324/.355/.486 with three homers. The 28-year-old infielder has split his time between third base, where he's platooned with Juan Francisco, and first base, where he filled in while Freddie Freeman was on the disabled list in April. The free-swinging Johnson and Francisco both have terrible strikeout-to-walk ratios (27/4 for the former, 33/5 for the latter) that underscore the likelihood they'll come back to earth. So far, though, Braves third basemen have hit a combined .276/.317/.480, helping to offset the retirement of Chipper Jones and the slow starts of B.J. Upton (.151/.250/.254), Jason Heyward (.121/.261/.259 with an appendectomy) and Dan Uggla (.197/.309/.409).
Led by Justin Upton, Atlanta ranks sixth in the league in scoring (4.39 runs per game) but first in homers (52) and third in slugging percentage (.419). The Braves are also first in the league in strikeouts (351) by a wide margin, 42 ahead of the next-highest team, the Padres, and on pace for 1,496 strikeouts, which would rank as the second-highest total in major league history behind the 1,529 of the 2010 Diamondbacks, a 97-loss team for whom Upton struck out 152 times. As Joe Lemire noted on Monday, the Braves aren't ashamed of their hitters' high strikeout totals because they're a byproduct of power. "Teams that don't strike out are probably complaining they don't have any power in the lineup," said Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez.
By contrast, under Kevin Towers, who took over as general manager late in the 2010 season, the Diamondbacks have made a conscious effort to steer away from high-strikeout hitters. All five of the players on that team that whiffed at least 140 times — Mark Reynolds (211), Adam LaRoche (172), Upton, Kelly Johnson (148) and Chris Young (145) — are now playing elsewhere, and only one Arizona hitter has topped 140 strikeouts in the past two years: Jason Kubel with 151 last year, when the Diamondbacks ranked fifth in the league with 1,266 K's. The current team ranks ninth, while still maintaining a top-five spot in both homers (41, tied for fourth) and slugging percentage (.407, fifth), though it's just eighth in scoring at 4.15 runs per game despite playing in a hitters' park.
The Diamondbacks went into last weekend tied for first place in the NL West, but Monday's loss, their third in a row, dropped them to 21-18, 2 1/2 games behind the Giants and fourth in the wild-card race, half a game behind the Reds, Nationals and Pirates. Of the five players they received in the Upton deal, only Martin Prado is on the 25-man roster at the moment, and he's been struggling, hitting just .233/.285/.346; after collecting four extra-base hits in his first four games, he has just six in his last 34 games.
Meanwhile, the one other player in the deal with major league experience, 22-year-old righty Randall Delgado, has been getting lit up like a slot machine in Triple-A Reno, with a 9.09 ERA in eight starts. Fortunately for Arizona, its starting pitching has been strong, and it has plenty of depth, so there's no great urgency for Delgado to sort things out, but on the other hand, none of the other three prospects they received in the deal — shortstop Nick Ahmed, first baseman Brandon Drury and righty Zeke Spruill — are anything close to an impact-level talent.
So at least at the moment, the trade is tilted quite heavily toward Atlanta, and with the best player in the deal appearing as though he's just entering his prime, it may become even moreso. That won't matter to the Diamondbacks if they can get back to the level they were at in 2011, when they won 94 games and the NL West, but in four of the other five full seasons since their 2007 playoff appearance, they've won 82 games or fewer.
As for the Braves, they're no longer the league's hottest team, but they appear ready to give the heavily-favored Nationals a run for the NL East money. If they succeed in winning their first division flag since 2005, the Upton trade will likely stand out among the major reasons why, and if they wind up merely matching last year's wild-card appearance — well, the Diamondbacks had better hope that it doesn't come at their expense.