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Trade Retrospective: Padres continue their quick rebuild by acquiring Justin Upton from the Braves

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A.J. Preller continued his odd plan to immediately make the Padres competitive by acquiring another outfielder who can’t play center.

Atlanta Braves v Washington Nationals Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

For the fifth straight offseason, BtBS is looking back on some of the biggest trades from years past. Check out all the entries here.

On the same day that they acquired Wil Myers, the Padres also traded for Justin Upton. To complete the trade they sent Max Fried, Jace Peterson, Dustin Peterson, and Mallex Smith to Atlanta. The Braves also included Aaron Northcraft as part of the deal.

In this trade retrospective series, trades will be evaluated based on what was known at the time. That is the only fair, logical way to evaluate trades and strip luck out of the equation: process over results. Having said that, we will still take a look at how the trade worked out for all parties.

The Deal

We’ve plenty covered where the Padres were after the 2014 season, so let’s focus on the Braves. After a competitive multi-year run, the Braves won only 79 games in 2014, and this was the year after they won 96 games and the division. It was time to rebuild.

Upton had a productive two-year run in Atlanta. Over those two seasons, he hit .267/.348/.478, good for a 131 wRC+ and 5.9 WAR, and he was only 27 years old. However, he only had one year left on his rookie contract, so he clearly was not going to be a part of the rebuilding Braves’ future. Of course, that does not mean it would be acceptable to give away one year of a 27-year-old, 3-4 WAR player.

Thankfully, the Braves did well with their return here. They didn’t get any of the Padres’ top prospects such as Hunter Renfroe or Austin Hedges, but that was not a realistic scenario anyway. Max Fried was clearly the headliner of this trade, who was the Padres’ first round pick in 2012. Unfortunately he had missed almost the entire 2014 season due to Tommy John surgery, but he was still young as someone who was just a month shy of turning 21. The lefty had the potential to be a number two or three starter. That alone is a pretty nice return for one year of a player the team didn’t need anymore.

I should point out that the Petersons included in this trade are not related. Jace made his major league debut in 2014, but he hit like a pitcher, albeit in only 58 PA. He had good speed and contact abilities, but he struggled to hit for power. Scouts projected him to be a utility infielder at worst. As for Dustin, his bat had a higher ceiling than Jace’s. His downside was whether or not he was going to be able to stick at third base or move to left field, where there would be more pressure to produce offensively, and even though scouts saw that upside in his bat, he still hadn’t produced it on the field. He hit only .233/.274/.361 in his first full season in the Single A Midwestern league.

Mallex Smith was an elite runner who could provide value defensively in the outfield and on the basepaths. He hit well that year in the minors, combining for a line of .310/.403/.432 between Single A and High A, as well as having a .408 OBP over 72 PA in the Arizona Fall League, but he only had two extra-base hits. As you can see, the problem was that he couldn’t hit for any power. However, if he could get on base in the majors at anywhere close to the rate he did in 2014, he could have All-Star potential with his defense and baserunning. That being said, I doubt the Padres believed in his high OBP that year, or else they very likely would have held on to him.

All in all, this was a good trade for both sides, but one has to wonder why Preller was continuing to get outfielders who couldn’t play center. Getting Upton exacerbated a logjam. Preller was in a position where he had to deal Carlos Quentin and Cameron Maybin, even though the latter was the only player on the team who could play center field.

The Results

Upton more or less performed as expected during his one year in San Diego. He hit .251/.336/.454, good for a 119 wRC+ and 4.2 WAR. Unfortunately, it didn’t matter much, as the Padres actually performed worse in 2015 than in 2014. They won only 74 games, three fewer than the year before.

It was a valiant effort, but clearly the Padres needed to undergo a full rebuild, which meant they had no further need for free agent Upton. He ended up signing a six-year, $132.75 million deal with the Tigers, lasting not even two years there before getting traded to the Angels as part of the Tigers’ own rebuild. The Tigers did well trading him at the right time, as he was in the midst of a season that saw him hit .273/.361/.540, good for a 137 wRC+ and 6.0 WAR.

In 2018, Upton continued to perform at the 3-4 WAR level that could be expected of him, but last season was a disaster. He played only 63 games last season due to struggling with injuries to his knee and turf toe, hitting only .215/.309/.416. FanGraphs’ Dan Szymborski has concerns for his future even if he’s healthy.

Fried debuted in 2017, but didn’t get his first full season until 2019. He did well, turning in a 4.35 RA9 and 6.7 BB%. He is just 26 years old, too, so there could be more upside in there. Even if he just stays at his current level of performance, he alone easily makes this trade a win for the Braves, who along with every other team except the Marlins in the NL East need every advantage they can get.

Jace Peterson became the player that scouts expected him to be: a utility infielder who can’t hit for any power, with a career ISO of just .102. He spent three years in Atlanta before moving on to the Yankees and then the Orioles. He is currently on a minor league deal with the Brewers.

Dustin Peterson didn’t debut until 2018, and he has gotten barely any playing time since then. I mentioned the positional concerns with him before, but it became moot because the bat just never came along. He has a career slash line in the minors of .262/.316/.382, which just doesn’t cut it at third base or left field. The Braves designated him for assignment in May 2018. The Tigers picked him up, but then parted ways with him at the end of the 2019 season. The latest on him is that he is playing in an independent league.

Smith lasted just a year in Atlanta before getting dealt to the Rays. He had a nice two-year run there, including a 2018 season where he hit .296/.367/.406, and leading the league with 10 triples and 40 stolen bases (against 12 times caught). The Rays sold high on his 3.5 WAR season and traded him to the Mariners for Mike Zunino. I wrote at the time that I liked the deal better for the Mariners, but that there was a rational argument that the Rays got the better end of the transaction, going on to say that Rays expect Smith to regress more than I thought he would. Well, believe it or not, the Rays are a lot smarter than I am. He hit just .227/.300/.335, which easily negated his league-leading 46 stolen bases (nine times caught), making him roughly a replacement level player last year. To be fair, though, Zunino wasn’t any better for the Rays.

As for Aaron Northcraft, who was a throw-in in the deal, there really isn’t much to say. He’s a 30-years-old career minor leaguer with a career 4.58 RA9.

Padres Results

Remaining Control WAR
Remaining Control WAR
Justin Upton 1 4.2
Aaron Northcraft 5 0
Total 6 4.2
Baseball Reference

That’s fine for what the Padres paid in talent. The problem was not just that it happened during an uncompetitive season. The problem was more Preller’s team building strategy going into the 2015 season. I hate to criticize a team for actually trying to win, but the Padres really should have stuck to rebuilding at the time instead of executing a flawed, rushed strategy.

Braves Results

Remaining Control WAR
Remaining Control WAR
Max Fried 6 3.5
Jace Peterson 6 0.9
Dustin Peterson 6 -0.1
Mallex Smith 6 1
Total 24 5.3
Baseball Reference

That’s probably as beneficial of an outcome as the Braves could have hoped for once they started to explore trades for Upton. Fried is still young, too, and he won’t be a free agent until after the 2024 season.

Stay tuned for another Padres/Braves trade next!

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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.