Justin Upton isn't the first important piece Arizona has sent packing this winter.
None of the players traded by the the Diamondbacks this off-season came as a surprise. One of the first things Kevin Towers did upon ascending to the general manager's throne in 2010 was put Justin Upton on the block; Chris Young was named as a potential trade piece before that season ended, and later the Diamondbacks' problems with Trevor Bauer were far from a secret. What was surprising, however, was that the Diamondbacks dealt all three, and what they received in return.
For Young, who was owed $8.5 million in 2013 and possessed an $11 million team option for 2014, the Diamondbacks received deposed closer Heath Bell from the Marlins and shortstop/utility infielder Cliff Pennington from the Athletics in a three-way deal. This move is the least problematic of the three. Bell makes $9 million in each of the next two seasons, but the Marlins are responsible for $8 million of that $18 million. Pennington gave them a shortstop to fill the hole left by the trade of Stephen Drew, whom the Diamondbacks likely would have lost through free agency anyway, had they declined his $10 million option (as the A's did).
Bell's price tag isn't perfect even with the discount, given his poor 2012, but he was much better in the second half of the season, and you can at least see the bounce-back logic here, given his past. As Young was being pushed by center-field prospect Adam Eaton, and generally a cluster of outfielders for too few spots, this trade made a kind of sense.
Then came another three-way deal, with the Reds and Indians. Arizona sent relievers Matt Albers and Bryan Shaw to Cleveland, along with Bauer, receiving shortstop Didi Gregorius, former prospect Lars Anderson, and generic reliever Tony Sipp in return. Sipp is useful, but hardly significant. Anderson was so out of the picture at the time of his arrival that he has already been designated for assignment by Arizona. That leaves Gregorius as the only real piece, and that's where the issues begin.
Since it was no secret Bauer was a potential problem player, it was likely he would be sold for less than his full value. This was taking that to an extreme, though, as Bauer, who came in as the ninth-ranked prospect in Baseball America's pre-season list a year ago, was dealt for a shortstop prospect that reminds Towers of a young Derek Jeter, but the rest of the baseball world believes is a guy with a good glove and no bat (making him more a Derek Jeter antonym than anything). Towers and the Diamondbacks likely believed Bauer would never reach his full potential in Arizona, but the return for that belief was uninspiring.
The package for Upton is better, but it's likely to underwhelm those who expected the Diamondbacks to be "blown away" by offers for Upton, as Towers himself put it over two years ago. Arizona received Randall Delgado, who, while no Bauer, is just 23, has twice been a top-50 prospect according to Baseball America, and has already shown some aptitude for the majors despite his youth. They also brought in Martín Prado, who has been plenty valuable with the Braves since becoming a full-time player. While he's a free agent next winter, the Diamondbacks have reportedly already begun discussions on an extension, discussions they wouldn't have been able to start were he still a Brave.
Then there's Brandon Drury, Nick Ahmed, and Zeke Spruill. The last of the bunch was the lone entry included in Atlanta's top 10 prospects this off-season, but Drury is just 20 and had a productive 2011 in the Rookie League, while Ahmed is a shortstop prospect who hasn't embarrassed himself with the bat. It's not pretty, but it beats getting back Lars Anderson and Tony Sipp.
While it's clear the Diamondbacks seem to ceding the N.L. West in 2013 to the Dodgers and Giants, as Rob Neyer pointed out earlier, they're also building toward something. What, though? Besides Delgado (and Prado, if an extension does come about) look to be all that valuable in the future. Gregorius could turn out to be a quality shortstop if he does hit enough, but the team already has Pennington for the next three years -- is Gregorius going to be much better than someone who has already proven he is what Gregorious could grow up to become? The farm isn't particularly deep, either, so when youth is traded away for lesser youth, it's hard to discern the purpose. Paying lefty-masher Cody Ross slightly less per year than Upton over the same time period doesn't lessen the confusion any, either.
The party line right now, from both Towers and manager Kirk Gibson, is that they want gritty players (like Ross) who give the mathematically impossible 110 percent, 162 games per year. Maybe that kind of spark is what the Diamondbacks need to compete and it's hard to gauge how personalities affect a clubhouse, but one wonders if simply having better players would improve their chances even more. We'll have to wait and see. Just like the Diamondbacks.