Justin Upton, Evan Gattis, and the Cost of a Royal Upgrade


Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The Winter Meetings are wrapping up today with the Rule 5 Draft, and at the time of this writing, the Royals have yet to make a move. I’m sure that’s disappointing to some, but I’m also sure that Dayton Moore and the rest of his staff haven’t just been chilling on the beaches of San Diego all week. He’s been in talks with agents and teams probably on a constant basis, and it sounds like some of those talks have been with the Braves.

Atlanta has a pair of right-handed hitters the Royals reportedly have interest in, with Evan Gattis and Justin Upton. Both possess significant power, though with different overall skillsets, and associated price tags.

Gattis is a “catcher” and “left fielder,” though best-suited for designated hitter. He’s hit 43 home runs in the last 2 seasons, and had a 125 wRC+ in 2014. The Braves have 4 years of control of Gattis, and he isn’t arbitration eligible until after 2015, so his salaries would certainly be cheap. Affordable power is always nice to have. Of course, those attributes also make the cost to acquire him much higher.

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Upton has a longer track record of success, putting up a wRC+ of at least 128 in 3 of the last 4 seasons. He also can handle right field defensively, even if he won’t win any Gold Gloves out there. And unlike Gattis, Upton can draw a walk, meaning his on-base percentage is consistently in the .350 range, despite a higher than average strikeout rate. He’s due $14.5 million for 2015, but then will be a free agent, meaning a trading team would only get him for the 1 season.

I’m more of an Upton fan personally, since Gattis’ lack of on-base skills concerns me, and if he loses some power, his offensive value plummets. So while each player would be great fits in the middle of the Royals lineup, Upton is clearly the superior option. The Braves reportedly asked for Yordano Ventura in exchange for Gattis, and they want more for Upton than they received for Jason Heyward, despite Heyward arguably being a more valuable player. Needless to say, making a deal for either player seems difficult.

However, the Braves may be willing to adjust their demands to a more acceptable point for the Royals. According to a league executive mentioned in McCullough’s article, they might consider dealing for one of the Royals’ trio of late inning relievers – Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera – as a part of the trade package. McCullough notes they may also need to include someone like Brandon Finnegan or Kyle Zimmer as well.

My first thought for that package was that it was pretty steep, but considering how much offense the Royals need, it may be worth it. Upon further reflection, though, I do think the Braves would need to come down with their asking price before the Royals should make that deal.

Kansas City needs an upgrade in right field, and while Upton absolutely qualifies as that, I’m not sure he’s worth an elite closer and a top 50 prospect. If Holland is included – which would make the back of the Braves bullpen just stupid good, having arguably the top 2 closers in the game – the prospect being sent to Atlanta shouldn’t have to be elite to make it work. I’m not a trade expert by any means, of course. The Marlins just gave up multiple prospects for Dee Gordon, so clearly none of us know anything about how this all works.

It would still be a steep price to pay for 1 year of Upton, or even 4 years of Gattis, but it may be more appealing than dealing Ventura or Danny Duffy. Trading away a young, cheap, frontline starter would be foolish, particularly considering the contracts being handed out to even the 2nd tier of pitchers. The Royals have a surplus of relievers, a talented farm system, and both bats would have an immediate impact on the Royals lineup. I’m not saying it’s a slam dunk that the Royals should make that deal, but they should definitely consider it.

This is the kind of move the Royals could make to improve the team without sacrificing that much, in the grand scheme of things. It may hurt to make at first, but I think it could still be worthwhile, because the trade wouldn’t end with Upton.

Even though the Royals likely wouldn’t be able to extend Upton, they would receive a draft pick when he signs a nine-figure deal elsewhere next winter, so that brings a bit more value back to Kansas City, even if that player selected doesn’t turn into an All-Star. That extra pick adds money to the draft pool, which allows the Royals to be more aggressive in their draft strategy. It doesn’t move the needle a ton, but it does move it.

Or, if something goes horribly wrong in 2015 and the Royals are out of contention, Upton immediately becomes an incredibly attractive trade chip for teams in need of offense. They could then flip him for prospects to continue to build their minor league depth. Obviously this is the least desirable outcome, but there’s still a silver lining.

With the way the free agent market is shaping up, it does seem like the Royals will be better served scanning the trading block for their upgrades, although Moore mentioned he’s optimistic about things in both avenues. Upton would present an enormous improvement to the lineup – as would Gattis, to a lesser extent – and while the cost to get either player may be high, the Royals need to fill some holes and get better.

Two years ago, the organization made a painful trade to add some proven talent to the roster. That one seemed to work out pretty well, and now they may need to do so once again.