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Kevin Towers, the genial 49-year-old who in September took over as the general manager of the Diamondbacks, apologized for his tardiness in returning a phone call last week. He explained that he had been hosting some representatives from the Yomiuri Giants of Japan's Central League, and the meeting had run long. "They've got interest in one of our players," Towers said. A beat. "Justin Upton."
He was joking; Upton won't be heading that far east anytime soon. But the 23-year-old rightfielder, who was the first pick in the draft at age 17, Baseball America's second-best prospect at 18, the majors' youngest player at 19 and an All-Star at 21—and who Josh Byrnes, Towers's predecessor, signed to a six-year, $51.25 million contract extension only last March—might be headed somewhere. Last month Towers, who spent 14 largely successful seasons as the Padres' G.M., from 1995 through 2009, made it known that Upton, who combines superstar potential with reasonable salaries through 2015, could be had for the right (read: an exorbitant) price. He says that no fewer than 25 of baseball's other 29 teams have been in touch about him, ensuring that Towers would not lack for conversation partners this week at baseball's winter meetings, which began on Monday in Orlando. "This type of contract, with this type of young player who's entering his prime, seemed not to scare away even some of the smaller-market clubs," says Towers, who adds that floating Upton as trade bait constitutes more than a publicity gambit by his recently irrelevant franchise, which reached the NLCS in 2007 but has finished last in the division in each of the past two years. "My approach has always been, nobody's untouchable," he says. "If the right deal presents itself, you need to look at it. This organization is more than just one player away. We lost 90 games with Justin Upton. You only trade him if you think the players you're getting back will make you a better ball club not only immediately but in the future."
A number of lower-revenue clubs have in recent years turned themselves into contenders with the help of savvy trades of stars in their primes. Included among them have been the Indians, who in 2002 dealt Bartolo Colon to the Expos for a package that included Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore; the Twins, who the following November got Joe Nathan and Francisco Liriano from the Giants for catcher A.J. Pierzynski; and the Rangers, who reached the World Series this fall behind two key players—shortstop Elvis Andrus and closer Neftali Feliz—who were acquired from the Braves in July 2007 for slugger Mark Teixeira. But none of those established stars was as young, talented and affordable for as long as Upton is. "It's very hard for me to understand how to put a valuation on him," says one rival executive. "There's really no model to work from as far as the speculative return."
No model in baseball, at least. The blockbuster deal that Towers is seeking to replicate was consummated 21 years ago this fall—the trade dreamed up by first-year Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson in 1989 that sent in-his-prime running back Herschel Walker to the Vikings for a package of players and draft picks that turned the Cowboys from 1--15 laughingstocks into a team that within three years would win the first of its three Super Bowls in four seasons. "If we were to make a deal," says Towers, "my hope would be that we could bring back potentially two Justin Uptons. He's a terrific young talent, and there's nothing he can't do. The sky's the limit on what he can become."
That Upton is still referred to mostly in terms of what he will be, as opposed to what he already is, suggests the degree to which he has spent his first three and a half seasons bouncing around the troposphere. He will quickly admit that. "For me, the biggest thing has been inconsistency," he says. "First two years [he batted .242 with 17 home runs and 53 RBIs in 151 games in 2007 and '08], I was feeling it out, did O.K. In '09 I had a good season [.300, 26 homers, 86 RBIs and 20 steals, while playing stellar defense in right]. This year, kind of a step back [.273, 17 homers, 69 RBIs, while sustaining a 100-point drop in OPS, from .899 to .799]. Moving forward, I think the numbers'll be there."
Upton isn't the only one who holds that opinion. "There's just so much pressure on those who are labeled the top prospects at the amateur levels these days," says one longtime scout. "He hasn't hit .300 with 30 home runs and stolen 40 bases yet, and that would be the only way he would be looked at as a success by some. Justin was a 19-year-old major leaguer. For some people that hasn't been good enough. But the tools are all there, and the ability to use them are all there, and there aren't many of those guys in the whole world.
"All I ever wished," adds the scout, "was that there were more Uptons."
There is, of course, one more: Justin's older brother, Rays centerfielder B.J., who was born to Manny and Yvonne Upton three Augusts before Justin, was a very high draft pick (No. 2 overall) three Junes before him and who made his major league debut three years to the day (Aug. 2, 2004) before him. B.J.'s big league career, like that of his brother, has featured "flashes of brilliance," in the words of Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon—such as his first full season, 2007, when he hit .300 with 24 home runs and 82 RBIs, and the '08 postseason, in which he hit seven homers in 16 games. But it has also, like Justin's, been hampered by nagging injuries (to B.J.'s shoulder; to Justin's oblique) and a lack of sustained success (B.J. had a .239 average with a .317 OBP over the past two seasons, albeit with 84 stolen bases and 108 extra base hits) that has drawn him some criticism. "He's a tools guy whose performance hasn't matched his tools," says one major league executive.
"B.J.'s really held to a high standard, part of that based on the potential he's had from the day he arrived," says Maddon. "But this guy's had to learn on the major league level, and he was really brought up way too soon. He didn't pass Algebra 2. He didn't pass English 3. He just kept getting pushed, pushed."
Complicating B.J.'s reputation, say both his father and Maddon (who twice benched him in 2008 for lack of hustle, incidents the manager says were isolated mental mistakes that could have been eradicated by proper minor league seasoning), is the way people perceive his on-field manner. "B.J.'s been stuck with the stigma all his life that he's lazy," says Manny Upton. "Actually, he's playing hard, but it doesn't appear he's playing hard. Justin shows his aggression more than B.J."