Arizona's Justin Upton, 25, a two-time All-Star who was fourth in the National League MVP balloting two years ago, when he hit .289 with 31 homers and 88 RBIs and won the Fielding Bible Award as the best defensive right fielder in the majors.
Photo: Christian Petersen
Photo: Christian Petersen

Braves complete trade for Justin Upton

The Braves have completed a dynamic new “Up, Up and a Hey” outfield, but they gave up popular veteran Martin Prado to make it happen.

In a blockbuster trade for two-time former All-Star outfielder Justin Upton and third baseman Chris Johnson, the Braves gave up the versatile Prado along with pitcher Randall Delgado, pitching prospect Zeke Spruill, and minor league infielders Nick Ahmed and Brandon Drury.

The deal was finalized Thursday morning pending physicals, a person familiar with the situation said.

Eight weeks after signing center fielder B.J. Upton to the biggest free-agent contract in franchise history (five years, $75.25 million), the Braves traded for his younger brother. Justin Upton, 25, finished fourth in the National League MVP balloting two years ago, when he had career-highs of 31 homers, 88 RBIs and 21 stolen bases and won the Fielding Bible Award as the best defensive right fielder in the majors.

He’ll move to left field for Atlanta and Jason Heyward, a Gold Glove winner in 2012, will stay in right to give the Braves potentially the most exciting outfield in the majors for the next three years. Justin Upton is under contract through 2015 and owed $38.5 million, including $9.75 million in 2013, $14.25 million in 2014 and $14.5 million in 2015.

Upton is a .278 career hitter with 108 homers, a .357 on-base percentage and 80 stolen bases in 731 games. Before 2011 his best season was '09, when he hit .300 with 26 homers, 86 RBIs and 20 stolen bases.

The Braves might still have close to $10 million to spend after trading away Prado’s salary and adding Justin Upton. Braves CEO Terry McGuirk told the Journal-Constitution last week that the team has a $98 million payroll target this year.

The Braves agreed to trade Prado only after offseason attempts to sign the former All-Star to a long-term extension fell through when they deemed his asking price – believed to be around $11 million to $12 million annually – was higher than they would go. Prado is eligible for free agency after the season and was scheduled for an arbitration hearing next month to determine if his salary would be the $6.65 million offered by the Braves or the $7.05 million he asked for.

Prado, 29, hit .301 with 10 homers and a .796 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 2012 and set career-highs in doubles (42), home runs (10) and stolen bases (17). He did that while playing five different positions including 111 starts in left field and 20 at third base. He was an All-Star at second base in 2010 before moving to left field after the Braves traded for Dan Uggla.

Arizona general manager Kevin Towers dangled Upton in trade discussions off and on for two years. When B.J. Upton signed with the Braves at the end of November, he said Justin and he often discussed their dream scenario of playing together. Their parents said at that time that they hoped it could happen with the Braves, and now it has.

Heyward, 23, won the Fielding Bible Award for right fielders last year in his third season, after finishing second to Upton in 2011. The outfield of Heyward and the Uptons should be exceptional defensively, and the trio could reasonably be expected to produce at least 80-90 home runs and 70-75 stolen bases while manning three spots near the middle of the batting order.

When the Braves first considered making an offer for Justin Upton, some team officials believed that adding him might make Atlanta the best team in the National League. They won 94 games last year and will probably need to win more than that to knock off reigning NL East champion Washington, which will likely be a consensus pick as division favorite entering the 2013 season.

The Braves didn’t re-sign free agent center fielder Michael Bourn and are expected to bat shortstop Andrelton Simmons at leadoff. Simmons batted leadoff when he won a minor league batting title at Class-A Lynchburg in 2011, hitting .311 with a .351 OBP that season. He hit .289 with a .335 OBP in 49 games as a Braves rookie in 2012.

The Braves and Diamondbacks discussed a possible trade for Upton earlier in the offseason, but that ended quickly when Towers demanded Simmons, who was declared off-limits. The Braves refused to trade Simmons, catching prospect Christian Bethancourt or ascendant pitching prospect J.R. Graham.

They were also able to avoid trading Julio Teheran, still rated as their top pitching prospect despite a disappointing season at Triple-A.

They traded away Delgado, who is 5-10 with a 3.95 ERA in 25 games (24 starts) in the majors, and Spruill, who was rated the Braves’ seventh-best pitching prospect this winter by Baseball America. Spruill, a 2008 second-round pick out of Marietta’s Kell High School, went 9-11 with a 3.67 ERA in 27 starts last season at Double-A Mississippi.

Ahmed, 22, followed a good season at Lynchburg (.269, 40 stolen bases) with a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League, but he was blocked for the forseeable future in Atlanta behind Simmons and Uggla, who is signed through 2015 and owed $39 million. Drury, 20, had a .257 average, .293 OBP and 17 homers in 902 at-bats during three seasons at the rookie-ball and Class-A levels.

Prado had been set to replace Chipper Jones at third base, but the Braves will now go with right-handing hitting Chris Johnson and left-handed hitting Juan Francisco in a likely platoon at the position, despite the fact that both hit lefties far better than they hit righties.

Johnson, 28, hit .281 with 15 homers and 76 RBIs in 488 at-bats for Houston and Arizona in 2012, and had 132 strikeouts with only 31 walks. He has a .283 career average against right-handers with 25 homers and a .775 OPS in 896 at-bats, compared to .255 with eight homers and a .667 OPS in 333 at-bats against lefties.

The knock on Upton has been inconsistency. His career-best 2011 season, when he had 31 homers and an .898 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, was sandwiched between two seasons in which he had 17 homers and a sub-.800 OPS. He hit .280 with 17 homers, 67 RBIs and 18 stolen bases in 150 games in 2012.

There is also the matter of his home/road statistical disparity.  In 2012, he had a .924 OPS at home and a .670 OPS on the road. For his career, he has a .937 OPS at Arizona’s Chase Field, and a .731 OPS on the road.

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