Upton rumors are becoming a tradition
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Justin Upton was taken by the D-backs with the first-overall pick in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft. There's no truth to the rumor that he's been on the trading block ever since, but sometimes it feels that way.Upton, you see, has been typecast in the Hot Stove screenplay. He is pinned to the part of the superstar-in-waiting -- a tempting bat made readily available, if and only if somebody will bite on the D-backs' asking price. Upton was dangled at the General Managers Meetings after the 2010 season. He was shopped at last season's July Trade Deadline. And here at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, where the 2012 Winter Meetings got under way Monday, he is once again a trending topic in trade talk. The sense in the lobby is that the D-backs are more intent than ever on moving him. "It sounds like they kind of want to," said a scout from another NL club, "but it's hard to pull the trigger." Well, sure, pulling the trigger is a lot more difficult than talking about pulling the trigger. And few can talk trade better than D-backs general manager Kevin Towers, who has made it clear that, in his eyes, every player has a price and is, therefore, a movable piece. "My style is not to say we're not going to listen on any of our guys," Towers said. "If people inquire, I'll listen on all of our players. Some clubs might take the position that, 'This guy's untouchable, we're married to him, he's our guy.' I've never done it, never will. You may not like that style, but that's how I do it. The players may not like it, but so be it." But in Upton's specific case, the public knowledge of this availability borders on the bizarre. For his name has been bandied about in these circles so long and so much that one wonders if we've reached a point of counter-productivity. A point where the relationship between player and club is so tenuous as to be hazardous. Upton's perceived availability has been directly tied to Towers' tenure in Arizona, as the first Upton rumors surfaced not long after Towers took over in 2010. When media members ask Towers if Upton is available, he doesn't deny it. And ultimately, this tells us more about Towers -- whose straight-shooting style is a rare trait, much to the chagrin of those of us who chase quotes for a living -- than it does about Upton. What do we know about Upton? Well, we know that consistency has not exactly been a hallmark of his career. But we have his 2011 season -- a season in which he hit 31 homers, registered an .898 OPS and finished fourth in the National League MVP voting -- to tempt us into thinking his ceiling is high. And we have his age -- 25 -- to remind us that ceiling might be as-yet-unmet. So Upton intrigues. And going off his 162-game average, even with his inconsistencies, it's fair to label him a more-accomplished version of his older brother, B.J. He's also three years younger and, at $38.5 million over the next three years, a heck of a lot cheaper. Why would the D-backs deal a guy like that? The question has circled around the industry for more than two years now, and his availability has led to unfair accusations about his work ethic and how much he cares about winning. Ask around the D-backs' clubhouse, and Upton's colleagues will tell you he is a terrific teammate, a hard worker, a true professional. Still, stigmas stick. And perhaps this has had an effect on Upton's market and, ergo, the D-backs' ability to move him. So now you've got a guy routinely in the rumor mill, with no real resolution to the matter. No assurances that a deal will get done, and no reassurances that the D-backs want him around for the long haul. This leaves Upton in limbo, and that's a bad place to be. Now, to suggest that Upton's 2012 performance, in which his power production dipped precipitously, is a result of the rumor-mill distractions would be off-base. After all, Upton responded to those November 2010 rumors by turning in the best season of his career to date. And the 2012 rumors didn't heat up until well after he opened the season in a slump. The power dip seems to be attributable to the thumb injury that bothered him basically the entire season. It's easy to see why Upton would be such a temptation for a GM in need of a bat, and it's equally easy to see why a team might be leery of forking over a few quality prospects to land him. What's hard to see, though, is what good all this public discourse could possibly do for Upton's relationship with Arizona. Who among us could fault Upton, who signed a six-year extension with the D-backs before the 2010 season, if he views this relationship as a little bit dysfunctional, if he's tired of the constant rumors and rumblings and just wants to play ball in a place where he feels wanted? "I've been loyal," he told ESPN The Magazine earlier this year, "and you expect some loyalties to you." Of course, Towers' primary loyalty has to be to making his team better. He knows you have to give up something to get something. And with depth in the outfield and needs in the starting rotation and at shortstop, he is willing to give up Upton, if the return is right. He doesn't seem particularly interested in how this public stance is perceived by the player. "These guys are well-paid professionals," Towers said. "They've been in this game a while. Rumors happen. Your name is going to be asked about in trades. The good ones are able to put on their blinders and say I can only worry about what I can control." Clearly, Upton can't control this. He's a regular in the rumor mill, whether he likes it or not. At this point, he'd probably like it a lot more if the D-backs would just get something done.