The Braves traded left fielder Justin Upton to San Diego on Friday in a six-player deal that adds prospects to a depleted farm system and subtracts the team leader in home runs and RBIs from an already anemic offense.
In return for Upton and minor-league pitcher Aaron Northcraft, the Braves received four young players, led by left-handed pitching prospect Max Fried. Recently ranked the Padres’ No. 3 prospect, Fried likely will miss all of next season after undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery in August.
Also coming to the Braves in the deal: second baseman-third baseman Jace Peterson, third baseman Dustin Peterson and outfielder Mallex Smith. Only Jace Peterson has played in the majors.
The trade sends the clearest signal yet that the Braves are looking beyond the 2015 season and trying to accumulate young talent that might mature in time for the team’s 2017 move into a new Cobb County stadium, SunTrust Park.
“What we’re trying to do is balance what we do in ’15 and ’16 and looking at what value we’re going to have for the long-term health of the franchise,” Braves president of baseball operations John Hart said Friday.
Upton is under contract for $14.5 million in 2015, but is eligible for free agency after the season. The Braves decided they wouldn’t attempt to sign him to a long-term deal despite the new ballpark’s promised rich revenue streams.
They reached the same conclusion about right fielder Jason Heyward, also eligible for free agency after next season and traded last month to St. Louis.
“Listen, it was tough to trade Justin Upton. But as we looked at it, it would have been tougher to sign him long-term,” Hart said. “We felt this was a good opportunity for us to maximize his value. Our scouts really liked all four of the players we acquired.”
Hart conceded that the Braves began Upton trade talks looking for a different type of deal than the one they made. The original idea, he said, was to acquire a young MLB-ready player plus a prospect behind him.
“We began to realize that just wasn’t going to present itself, (that) no matter how talented Justin Upton is there was just not a deal out there that was going to allow us to bring in a now-ready guy,” Hart said. “As we began to get our arms around this particular trade, we realized this would not be a deal that would impact us, other than financially, in the short term, but it would … strengthen a farm system that is right now one of the lower-ranked farm systems.”
Hart said the deal “also is going to provide some additional dollars for our club as we go forward for 2015.”
Losing Upton’s bat doesn’t bode well for a Braves lineup that scored the second fewest runs in the majors last season. Upton hit .270 with 29 home runs and 102 RBIs.
Barring other moves, the Braves are expected to shift catcher Evan Gattis to left field and play Christian Bethancourt behind the plate. The Braves earlier signed free agent Nick Markakis to replace Heyward in right field.
Fried, 20, appears to have the highest upside of the players the Braves acquired for Upton. The 6-foot-4 left-hander was the seventh pick of the 2012 amateur draft and recently was ranked baseball’s No. 68 overall prospect by MLB.com.
In 2013, Fried was 6-7 with a 3.49 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 118 2/3 innings in Class A. In 2014, he pitched in only five games, suffering an elbow injury that led to surgery. If his rehab progresses normally, he should return to the mound by 2016.
“I think without the fact he had the Tommy John, there’s no way we would have had a chance to get this type of talent for … a guy that has one year left on his deal,” Hart said. “It gives you pause for concern, there’s no question, but we did a lot of due diligence.”
The player acquired by the Braves in the deal who apparently is closest to contributing to some degree in the majors is Jace Peterson, 24. He batted just .113 (6-for-53) in 27 games with San Diego last season, but is a career .287 hitter in the minors.
“He’s going to be given an opportunity to compete for our everyday second-base job,” Hart said, “or (be) a super-utility type player for our club this year.”
He’ll compete with recently signed Alberto Callaspo at second base until prized prospect Jose Peraza is ready.
The other players the Braves received in the deal played in Class A last season.
Dustin Peterson, 20, a second-round pick in the 2013 draft, hit .233 with 10 home runs in 126 games, committing 38 errors at third base. He recently was ranked the Padres’ No. 10 prospect. Smith, 21, a fifth-round pick in 2012, hit .310 with a minors-leading 88 stolen bases. He was ranked the Padres’ No. 20 prospect.
In addition to players, the Braves received the Padres’ fourth international bonus-pool slot — money Hart said “is extremely important to our international scouting efforts.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.