Stats vs. Team Spirit: The Importance of the Justin Upton Trade

The Braves are gambling that a budding star is more valuable than a clubhouse leader in what could prove to be baseball's most important offseason move.

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Justin Upton spent the first seven years of his professional career with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Now he's joining his brother B.J. as a member of the Atlanta Braves.

When Chipper Jones retired at the end of the 2012 season, it was expected that the large leadership void he left behind in the Atlanta Braves clubhouse would be filled by popular seven-year veteran Martin Prado. On Jan. 24, the Braves traded Prado and four prospects to the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for all-star outfielder Justin Upton and third baseman Chris Johnson. By nearly all accounts, the Braves GM Frank Wren had scored a coup, acquiring one of the game’s brightest young stars for only nickels on the dollar. But then some old doubts began to creep in.

Every baseball season—and for that matter, offseason—the inexplicable debate over the comparative worth of statistics and intangibles rages on. Despite substantial evidence to support the value of advanced metrics like WAR, UZR and VORP, the so-called “Old Guard” of baseball thinkers continues its quest to belittle “new” stats and those who endorse them. In recent years, the vitriol has subsided somewhat but the underlying question of the debate remains the same: Are the numbers more important than intangibles and chemistry?

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The Braves certainly hope so. Even if this trade doesn’t shape the entire course of the baseball season, it—more than any other this offseason—will serve as the latest referendum on a familiar argument. Though Prado was beloved in the clubhouse and put together a solid 2012 campaign (5.4 WAR, or “wins above replacement”—a measure of how many more wins an individual player contributes over a minor-leaguer), there’s little question that Upton is the superior talent. The first overall pick in the 2005 amateur draft, Upton had his best season in 2011 when he hit .289 with 31 home runs and compiled a 5.7 WAR. His 2012 campaign was less remarkable (due in part to a nagging thumb injury sustained in April), but Upton is only 25 and only beginning to enter his prime, whereas Prado, at 29, is likely most of the way through his.

Then there are those other numbers—the ones preceded by dollar signs. Upton isn’t cheap at $38.5 million over the next three years, but Prado was reportedly looking for a deal worth nearly as much. For a 25-year-old phenom, the price makes sense. For a 29-year-old who has never recorded an on-base-percentage above .380 or hit 20 home runs, not quite. (The Braves are also likely hoping that Upton will be willing to re-sign at a discount when his contract expires in 2015—they signed his older brother, B.J., to a five-year, $75 million contract earlier in the offseason.)

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Yet the sound logic behind Wren’s trade and the early praise it’s received have been overtaken in recent weeks by concerns of clubhouse leadership. Entire articles have been written in an attempt to determine who will “lead” the Braves for the 2013 season, as if the role has exceeded the importance of the positions on the field. Could it be Brian McCann? Dan Uggla? Tim Hudson? Jason Heyward? The answer is largely inconsequential. The fact that the question is being asked with such fervor in the first place is actually a good thing for the Braves. They’re a team without major problems on the field—strong lineup, solid defense, up-and-coming rotation, bulletproof bullpen—so fans and the media are left to create ones off the field.

An old baseball adage says: “Chemistry doesn’t breed winning. Winning breeds chemistry.” Even if the Braves may have jeopardized their chemistry by parting with Prado, acquiring Upton gives them the team its best chance to win. If the Braves end the 2013 season with their first World Series championship since 1995, they will have succeeded at filling a much bigger void than the one Chipper left behind.

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