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Snakebitten? D'backs make peculiar decision to trade Justin Upton's 'superstar' talent

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

What many in this age of baseball homogeneity don't quite understand is a simple principle: There is more than one way to win. One of the game's beauties is its improbability – how, say, Red Sox teams that relied so heavily on numerical analysis won two World Series in four years while half a decade later Giants teams built with a diametrically opposed baseball worldview won two titles in three years. The road in baseball is not a Frost poem. Its fork has unlimited tines.

No matter a team's philosophy, one commonality saturates winners: talent. Perhaps the Red Sox and Giants took different paths to find it, but both aimed more than anything to build the most talented team it could.  That is what makes the Arizona Diamondbacks' trade of Justin Upton on Thursday so fascinating –  the sort of thing that if successful could alter the sport's calculus and if failed could add another check mark to the assault against intangibles.

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Justin Upton hit 14 fewer home runs in 2012 than in 2011, when he smacked 31 homers. (Reuters)

As much as any baseball team in recent memory, the Diamondbacks on Thursday publicly embraced the idea of grittiness and guts, of the inherent and unquantifiable. And in doing so, they finished a two-trade whammy over the last six weeks that has seen them ship out their two most talented players in an effort to better embody this belief.

First went Trevor Bauer, the super-talented and cerebral pitching prospect who rubbed manager Kirk Gibson and some teammates the wrong way. And now Upton, the super-talented and underproductive outfielder who was extremely well-liked by teammates but did not embody the dirt-on-the-uniform, all-out, get-concussed-or-go-home sort of player Gibson wants, because, in a flare of vanity, Gibson wants guys who play like he did, football in a baseball uniform.

[Related: D'backs press on without Justin Upton at No. 14 on Springboard rankings]

If Upton committed any crime that prompted his trade to the Atlanta Braves for third baseman Martin Prado and four prospects, it was not being enough like Gibson. As Upton struggled through injuries last season, he made sure to take early batting practice in an attempt to fix his swing. Gibson would've liked Upton to spend some more time in the weight room.

It mattered not, either, that the Diamondbacks thrust Upton into a role at 19 years old with which he wasn't altogether comfortable: franchise player. They called right field "Uptown." The organization, which under well-regarded president Derrick Hall is considered perhaps the fan-friendliest in baseball, wanted someone to be the team's public face. When Upton blanched at some of that attention and the commitments it required, it reinforced the idea that he wasn't right for these Diamondbacks.

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Kirk Gibson's intensity hasn't waned much from his playing days. (Getty Images)

The result is a fascinating experiment: a team stressing culture over talent. The Diamondbacks might say otherwise – Prado is an All-Star and in both deals they got young and talented shortstops, one of the toughest things to find – but a consensus of scouts and sabermetric wonks agree: In both trades, Arizona sacrificed one for the other.

"Different clubs like to look for certain intangibles," Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers said. "We like that gritty, grinder type. Hard-nosed. I'm not saying Justin isn't that type of guy."

Actually, he sort of was saying that. While Towers made sure to praise Upton, to say the Diamondbacks "never had to kick him in the rear to play," he brought up body language. Towers is an old scout, and it is an old scouting trope – that slumping shoulders can tell all he needs to know about a player. Fluidity can be mistaken for bad body language, too, and the ease with which the game comes to Upton and other such gifted players can be mistaken for not caring. When the seed of that idea is already planted, it doesn't take much for someone to germinate it.

"Sometimes people's mannerisms and the way they carry themselves – they might not perceive him as the grinder type," Towers said, and he used that word again. Grinder. It's a baseball catch-all for players who make up for a lack of physical gifts with hard work and a willingness to do anything. It is also a word that baseball people almost never attach to black players. Maybe it's because they see most black players as physically gifted to begin with. Perhaps it's a subconscious bias borne of historic stereotyping. The Diamondbacks certainly don't traffic in racism – they wouldn't have built ad campaigns around Upton otherwise – but in outlining their philosophy for this team, they severely limit the sort of player who fits the system.

In Towers' eyes, Upton was not great, not yet. "I think he's got potential to be a superstar," Towers said, though he quickly added: "Sometimes to become a superstar you've got to pay the price and do the extra things."

Whether joining Gibson, Towers, the rest of the Diamondbacks' coaching staff and a few teammates in the weight room at 5:30 a.m. truly would've made the difference between Upton's potential superstardom and his actual play is a dubious proposition. Still, at 25, Upton is not the sort of player so many inside and outside the organization suspected. He is, in many ways, a bigger, stronger clone of his older brother, B.J., whom he'll join in Atlanta.

B.J. also was the No. 1 pick whose moments of greatness scream Hall of Fame and whose failures frustrate evermore because the contrast between them is so stark. Two years ago, Justin Upton finished fourth in the National League MVP voting. He hit 31 home runs and posted an .898 slugging percentage. In baseball history, 12 outfielders had that many homers and that high an OPS in their age-23 season: Andruw Jones, Vladimir Guerrero, Manny Ramirez, Juan Gonzalez, Jose Canseco, Reggie Jackson, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Duke Snider, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Mel Ott.

Teams don't trade that guy.

[Related: Baseball with Babe Ruth, Al Capone signatures up for auction]

Not with three years and just $38.5 million left on his contract. Not for cultural reasons alone. Not with a free agent-to-be coming back as the centerpiece, even if Prado is inclined to sign a long-term extension, which won't be for much less than the Diamondbacks could've given him in free agency without giving up Upton.

There is more to this, sure. The Diamondbacks worried Upton had peaked – that, even with the injuries, if he couldn't muster an .800 OPS last season with mediocre NL West pitching in a great hitters' park like Chase Field, they needed to deal him with the perception of future-star still affixed. Already they had traded his two running buddies, Ryan Roberts and Chris Young. Gone, too, was Bauer, who if he weren't so interested in pitching mechanics and the science behind them might be mistaken for a grinder, extracting everything possible from an undersized frame.

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The Braves swung hard in free agency for B.J. Upton. They followed up by trading for Upton's younger brother. (AP) …

And now it's Upton, shipped to a thrilled Braves team that suddenly joins the Washington Nationals as NL favorites while the Diamondbacks try to sneak in behind the reigning champion Giants and megabucks Dodgers. Towers has gone all-in shaping this team in the mold of his manager instead of forcing his manager to be malleable to the talent. Diamondbacks players love Gibson – not necessarily his obsessive detail as much as how much he hates losing, how he'll come into a clubhouse and rant about the attitude or whatever else is on his mind and punctuate it with a simple pick-me-up: "Let's go get 'em today."

Gibson, at the same time, is not Tony La Russa, the sort of manager with the cachet and gravitas to hand-select his roster. Gibson won a division title in his first full year. Then he went 81-81. And that is his résumé. Gibson may well end up being the best manager of his generation. Towers wants to do everything he can to make sure that's the case.

[Related: Fantasy fallout of Justin Upton trade]

Trading talent with perceived personal flaws rarely leads to such success. This does not make Gibson a bad guy for wanting a certain type of player. This does not make Towers stupid, not after a career of showing that he is indeed one of the game's savvier GMs, the sort who has made what seemed like ill-conceived plans in the past work with aplomb. Because they contradict current convention does not fit them for a dunce cap.

It simply leaves them prone. The Diamondbacks dumped a player with superstar potential when they didn't have to. They scoffed at the roads offered and cleared a new one with Grit Avenue and Guts Boulevard and Grind Parkway as side streets. They can only hope the ride is not as bumpy as it looks.

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