Should the Mariners trade for Justin Upton?

One of the bigger names perculating on the hot stove rumor mill is that of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ center fielder Justin Upton. A former first overall pick in 2005, still just 23 years old and locked up through 2015 at a rather affordable rate, Upton is the type of commodity that rarely sees their name bandied about during the offseason.

But with a new GM in Kevin Towers (formerly of the San Diego Padres), the Diamondbacks could be looking to implement a rebuilding plan that allows the team to be competitive sooner rather than later. In other words, sometime before the Colorado River floods the Grand Canyon once again.

Trading Upton would certainly be instrumental in speeding that process up. As their one great asset, Upton could fetch a handful of young, potential Major League starters. Essentially allowing the D’Backs to regenerate one-third of their starting lineup within two years by losing just one starter. Or two-fifths of their rotation.

Upton, though, doesn’t come without his risks. While he is still a baby at just 23 years of age, he’s played 3.5 seasons in the majors already and in the midst of showing the ability to hit for average and power, has shown the propensity to strikeout at ever increasing rates and be susceptible to injury. In those three full seasons, Upton has never played more than 138 games or hit over .300.

Now, clearly that’s a lot of nitpicking for such a young player with superstar potential. But, for teams like the Seattle Mariners who want to get involved in trade discussions for him, they are the issues that have to be considered. After all, it isn’t often that a player with Upton’s skill set, youth and contract status hit the open market. So just why are the D’Backs dangling their star? It’s a question that really, only the D’Backs know for sure.

Upton represents a major upgrade not only to the Mariners’ offense, but to their outfield as well. Center fielder Franklin Gutierrez , 27, was just awarded his first career gold glove but Ichiro Suzuki, 37, enters the final two years of his contract and left fielder Michael Saunders is by no means a lock to hold down that spot entering 2011.

With as much competition out there for Upton’s services as there is, the price requested for by the D’Backs will be as high as any in recent memory. Think Mark Texieria status.

Depending on what the D’Backs are looking for in return — whether it be current Major Leaguers with three or more years of club control at an affordable rate or five star prospects at the cusp of the bigs — the Mariners will be looking at creating a package that centers around one of their elite prospects: RHP Michael Pineda or 2B Dustin Ackley.

Both players are rated as 5-star prospects in Baseball Prospectus’ latest review and are looking at breaking into the Majors in 2011 by earning a roster spot out of spring training. Considering the Mariners current status as a franchise with a desperate need for hitting and the quality of hitter that Ackley projects to be, it really seems unlikely that Seattle will part ways with the recently named Arizona Fall League MVP with a .424 batting average and 1.300+ OPS.

More likely, Seattle will look to create a package that centers around Pineda, their 21 year-old flamethrower. Pineda, has a little bit more risk to him than does Ackley with a small history of arm issues (albeit nothing too serious) and just in the simple fact that he is a pitcher and those are much harder to predict. Pineda could develop into a CC Sabathia-type talent or be the next Dontrelle Willis.

Other players that could be involved in Seattle’s package are: CF Franklin Gutierrez, LHP Jason Vargas, RP Josh Lueke, RP Dan Cortes, RP Josh Fields, LHP Mauricio Robles, 1B Mike Carp, SS Carlos Truinfel, SS Nick Franklin or OF Johermyn Chavez.

Take any three of those names with Pineda’s and I’m sure the M’s would jump at the trade (and I’m not too sure the D’Backs wouldn’t either). The problem will be if the D’Backs start asking for Pineda AND Ackley plus or Pineda AND Smoak+  not to mention Smoak AND Ackley+. In my opinion, the Mariners would be foolish to put either Justin Smoak or Ackley on the table.

Ultimately, Seattle should be serious about getting involved in discussions with Arizona to acquire an elite talent in Upton with as many years left on his contract as he has. But, if Arizona led by Towers asks for the moon and the stars in addition to the earth, the team should be content to ride out their current rebuilding plan because I truly believe they will find that two years of patience will be rewarded with a potential dynasty-type club. However, if Arizona goes for a package of say Pineda, Gutierrez, Cortes and Truinfel then the Mariners should jump at the opportunity of adding perhaps the game’s most talented young star.

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