This weekend, Bob Nightengale reported that, prior to the Trade Deadline, each of the Chicago Cubs and Atlanta Braves were looking to dump a bad contract on the other team. For the Cubs, it was Edwin Jackson’s; for the Braves, it was B.J. Upton. In any attempt to move Edwin Jackson at that time (let alone now), we discussed the possibility that a bad contract swap might be the best approach for the Cubs.
But Upton wasn’t the bad contract they were looking for.
Nightengale says the Cubs said no, even as the Braves offered a bunch of cash to try and even up salaries. After this season, Jackson is owed $22 million between 2015 and 2016, and Upton is owed $46.35 million between 2015, 2016 and 2017. The two sides might discuss again in the offseason, according to Nightengale.
So, let’s imagine the money was exactly the same, with the only difference being that the Cubs could have Jackson for two years, or Upton for three years. Any interest in a swap?
You all know what Jackson is, has been, and could be. The stuff has always been real, but, this year in particular, he’s been hit badly, and his overall performance seems to be in decline. It’s hard to imagine having much confidence in him as a sure-fire rotation member next year, but there’s still upside if the Cubs wanted to hold onto him in the bullpen (to see what he could do in short relief with that fastball/slider combo) and/or as a 6/7/8 starter. The money is a sunk cost, and the only question is whether you think Jackson is worth a 25-man roster spot at all.
Upton, who turned 30 last week, has been an unmitigated disaster in Atlanta since signing a $75.2 million, five-year deal two seasons ago. After averaging nearly 4.0 WAR per year with the Rays, Upton came to the Braves and has been a below replacement-level player in his two seasons in Atlanta. Not only has his defense in center taken a hit (aging?), but his strikeout rate is up over 30%, his walk rate is down below 10% (that was always one of the great things he had going for him), and his power has completely vanished.
Digging into Upton’s swing numbers, you can see why he’s struggling. The following bad, bad trends have followed him now for several years: he is increasingly chasing pitches out of the zone, he is making contact with those pitches out of the zone (i.e., pitches you cannot drive) at a 56% clip, his contact rate on pitches in the zone is plummeting, and his overall rate of pitches seen in the zone is going down. Pitchers are realizing that they can get him to get himself out (or to strikeout) by working him out of the zone. Compounding the problem, when pitchers do come into the zone, they’re getting more whiffs than ever. These are serious issues.
Now, then, we don’t know the issues behind the issues, and whether they’re correctable. Maybe the Cubs can see some things on tape or in the scouting that suggest fixes to get him back to what he was pre-2013. That, however, seems unlikely. So, at best, you’d be hoping for Upton to be a better version of what the Cubs have in Junior Lake: a guy who has great athleticism, runs the bases well, plays decent defense all over the outfield, but doesn’t contribute a whole lot at the plate thanks primarily to contact issues. That’s a fringy fourth/fifth outfielder to me. Given the presence of Chris Coghlan, Justin Ruggiano, and Ryan Sweeney (to say nothing of Lake, too), I’m not sure I’d rather bet on that guy – even at the same total cost over three years – than the guy the Cubs already have for two years in Jackson.
If the Braves want to try and offload more of the salary on Upton’s side by including a quality prospect (and the Cubs would essentially be “buying” that prospect), then maybe there’s something there. On a one for one swap, though, I’m not sure I see it.
It’s certainly an interesting discussion, and, let’s be quite clear: it’s not like the Cubs are going to conjure up some great return for Jackson. If they are determined to trade him, this is the kind of deal you’d be likely to see. The team simply has to decide, when confronted with options like this, which player is more likely (and we could be talking about measuring 15% versus 25%) to contribute in any meaningful way over the next couple/few years.