As you’ve probably already heard, the Arizona Diamondbacks finally traded Justin Upton – he will join his brother B.J. in Atlanta. (I’m anxiously awaiting any and all “Upton Boys” parodies to the tune of Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girls.”) For a number of people in the baseball world, this trade was viewed as a head scratcher. Why were the D-Backs so anxious to get rid of a player of Upton’s caliber, for a return that’s considered just “okay,” when Upton was signed to an affordable contract for the next few years? It reminded me of the discussion centered around the Trevor Bauer trade all over again. It seemed mystifying at the time that the D-Backs would give up on such a talented first round pick, just because of disagreements over his pitching routine. Then I happened to see this story by Ken Rosenthal at Fox Sports that proclaimed that the D-Backs wanted a team of “gritty dirtballs” and that Upton was not a “D-Backs kind of player.” Is this strategy genius, or insanity? Is it somehow “safer” to avoid a Bauer, or an Upton, and instead rely on less flashy, hard-working players? I think if you’re going to use the Cleveland Indians as your example, you’d realize the “gritty player” scenario didn’t do much for them over the past 10 years.
When Mark Shapiro became the general manager of the Indians after the departure of John Hart, he spent a lot of time emphasizing the importance of character in addition to talent. In a 2006 interview, he basically came right out and said so: “But our goal is to build a championship-caliber club that is of high character.” I’m sure we all remember Eric Wedge’s tendency to throw around the term “grinder” in reference to a mediocre player that seemed to have a lot of heart. One of the players of this era that the Indians decided “wasn’t worth it” was Brandon Phillips. He came to Cleveland in 2002 in the legendary Bartolo Colon trade, and broke camp with the team in 2003 – the first year of Wedge’s tenure. Almost immediately you hear whispers about how Phillips is a “problem” and that he’s causing issues in the clubhouse. The Indians essentially gave up on Phillips; their decision fueled by his so-called inability to get along with Wedge and to fall into line. The Indians sent him to the Reds for virtually nothing (Jeff Stevens) and had a void at second base, and in the lineup, for years. Phillips, as we all well know, went to Cincinnati and flourished.
Phillips didn’t seem to forget his treatment at the hands of the Indians. In a 2009 interview he expressed his bitterness over the situation and his lingering resentment toward Wedge, saying “…I was put on standby. I had to be a totally different person. I couldn’t do that.” As an example of his situation, Phillips added, “What they did to me was like the New York Mets going up to Jose Reyes and saying, ‘Hey, you can’t smile and you can’t play the way you play.’ There’s no chance Reyes could do that.” In 2006, after the Indians had “freed themselves” from the “problematic” Phillips, he hit .276/.324/.437 with 17 home runs for Cincinnati. In my opinion, that seems like a pretty good problem to have. Even though there is no guarantee that his bat would have made a difference, could you imagine Phillips on the 2007 squad? Could he have helped launch the Indians into the World Series? Could his .288/.331/.485 line, his 30 home runs, and his 3.7 bWAR have helped the Indians get just one more win during the regular season? Because if you remember, the Indians finished the regular season tied for the best record with the Boston Red Sox, who due to a better head-to-head record owned home field advantage in the ALCS.
When the Indians gave up on Phillips, it left a void on the right side of the infield. Just look at the collection of players that manned second base between Phillips and Jason Kipnis: Ronnie Belliard, Asdrubal Cabrera, Josh Barfield, Luis Valbuena, Joe Inglett, Jamey Carroll, and Orlando Cabrera. These players basically fall into one of three categories – journeymen, prospects that never panned out, and someone playing away from their natural position. Could you imagine an infield with Phillips and Cabrera up the middle? I like to think about things like that when I eat ice cream straight out of the container while crying.
Perhaps the Indians have learned their lesson from this whole debacle. When Chris Perez became a “problem” last year, I figured he would soon be traded for anything resembling a magic sack of beans. Rather than dump him off for another Jeff Stevens, the Indians instead held onto him. It’s not to say that they won’t (or shouldn’t) trade him at some point, it’s just to say that they appeared to value the return over the idea of eradicating a “problem.” The question remains as to what kind of lesson the Diamondbacks will take away from this offseason’s moves. Perhaps the departure of Bauer and Upton will unify and solidify their roster; with those “problems” out of the way the remaining players can use their grit and determination to rack up wins. The alternative is that they watch Upton and Bauer continually make highlight reels and All-Star games, while their team languishes in or near the basement of their division. The Diamondbacks can say that Upton was some kind of team cancer, or that he hasn’t met his full potential. The fact remains that he is just 25-years-old – the same age as Phillips when the Indians jettisoned him to the Reds.
I honestly could care less about a player’s “grit,” as long as he performs on the field. He doesn’t have to volunteer at the local animal shelter, and help old ladies across the street, as long as he gets on base and hits home runs. Heck, if he has an OPS of .900+, I honestly don’t care if he partakes in some kind of unholy sacrifice in the locker room prior to games or prank calls orphans. Because sometimes, it really is like the saying – nice guys finish last.