Revisiting the Padres acquisition of Justin Upton

Credit: AP Photo

As A.J. Preller continued to shop for players, he struck the first of two trades with the Atlanta Braves to acquire Justin Upton.

The dust from the Wil Myers trade was just settling, but A.J. Preller still had one more card to lay down on the table.

Padres fans woke up on December 19, 2014, to discover that the San Diego Padres had acquired outfielder Justin Upton and pitcher Aaron Northcraft from the Atlanta Braves in exchange for left-hander Max Fried, outfielder Mallex Smith, and infielders Jace Peterson and Dustin Peterson.

With the acquisition of Upton, San Diego had a newly minted outfield consisting of Upton, Myers, and Matt Kemp. At the same time, the earlier acquired Derek Norris breathed new life into Bud Black’s lineup.

San Diegans were familiar with Upton as he began his career with their NL West rivals in the Arizona Diamondbacks before being traded to the Braves for two seasons.

Upton had a strong 2014 season with the Braves, compiling an OPS of .833, a 133 wRC+, and 29 total home runs. He was rewarded with a Silver Slugger for his efforts.

As a Padres, Upton was able to recreate similar, yet slightly lower, numbers at the plate. His OPS slipped to .790, his wRC+ lowered to 119, and he slugged 26 numbers. However, his WAR as a Padre (3.4) was similar to the amount he posted in 2014 (3.7).

The second piece of the trade, Northcraft, never advanced past the minors. He spent two seasons shuttling between Double-A San Antonio and Triple-A El Paso before declaring for free agency in 2016. He is currently a member of the Miami Marlins after signing a minor league deal with an invite to Spring Training.

Fried was the seventh overall pick for San Diego in the 2012 MLB Draft and was the Padres second-ranked prospect in 2014. However, Tommy John surgery forced him to miss a majority of the 2014 season as well as the entire 2015 season.

He made his major league debut for Atlanta in the 2017 season and made 30 starts in the 2019 season, compiling a 4.02 ERA, 3.72 FIP, 3.32 xFIP, and a 3.83 SIERA. Fried surprised with his durability as he tossed 165.2 innings in 2019, surpassing the 33.2 innings he threw in 2018 by a wide margin.

Fried, however, has yet to unlock his full potential as a front-line starter, and it’s not a guarantee that he will begin the season in the rotation with the signing of Felix Hernandez by Atlanta.

Smith was a fifth-round pick by the Padres in the 2012 MLB Draft, as was seen as a potential starter in center fielder before being shipped off to Atlanta. The speedster played in one season for Atlanta, accumulating an OPS of .681, wRC+ of 84, and 16 stolen bases before being traded yet again.

This time, his destination was Seattle, who immediately traded him to Tampa Bay in a deal for Drew Smyly. As a Ray, Smith had his best season in 2018 with a .773 OPS, 188 wRC+, and 40 steals while posting decent numbers in the outfield.

Smith currently plays for the Seattle Mariners, where his numbers have slipped both offensively and defensively.

Peterson (Jace, not Dustin) was a first-round pick in 2011 and actually made his major league debut for the Padres in 2014, hitting .113/.161/.113 in 27 games before being traded.

Since the trade, Peterson has bounced around the league carving out a career as a utility infielder, suiting up for the Braves, New York Yankees, and the Baltimore Orioles.

His strength lies in his utility, as he has played every position on the field except for catcher, albeit to mediocre results. His bat has lagged behind his glove as he has never logged an OPS higher than .715 in his career.

Peterson signed a minor league contract with the Milwaukee Brewers in the offseason. The deal came with an invitation to the big-league camp.

Photo Credit: Andy Hayt

The other Peterson involved in the trade, Dustin, was selected in the second round of the 2013 MLB Draft by San Diego. Since the trade, he has had two very brief cups of coffee in the big leagues, playing two games with Atlanta in 2018 and 17 games as a Detroit Tiger in 2019.

Peterson was scooped up by the Los Angeles Angels on a minor league contract with an invitation to Spring Training.

Unfortunately, all of the retoolings didn’t equal success. Despite Upton suiting up for 150 games and representing the Padres in the 2015 All-Star Game, San Diego still finished in fourth place in the NL West with a 74-88 record.

Bud Black had been fired after going 32-33 with the club, and his replacement, Pat Murphy, was shown the door after a 42-54 record.

Upton left town to sign a six-year, $132.75 million mega-deal with the Detroit Tigers, but the Padres received a compensation pick in the 2016 MLB Draft. The choice was used to draft a left-hander named Eric Lauer out of Kent State 25th overall.

While the Padres failed to snatch lightning in a bottle, the Braves failed to get much value out of the players they received. Fried is a mid-rotation starter so far in his career, Smith never blossomed in Atlanta, Peterson (Jace) became a decent utility player who has since moved on, and Peterson (Dustin) never capitalized on his potential.

It is tough to grade what team “won” this trade. Upton was a Padre for all of one year, and Northcraft was a throw-in who never materialized while the only player to find some success as a Brave was Fried. Upton’s All-Star appearance tips the scale slightly in San Diego’s favor, but the swap ultimately resulted in a stalemate.

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5 thoughts on “Revisiting the Padres acquisition of Justin Upton

  1. I agree with Mike C. The article overlooks that Max Fried went 17-6 last year. You’d have to go back to Randy Jones or Jake Peavey to see a Padre pitcher with a record like that. The Braves took advantage of A.J. Preller in this trade.

  2. The article does a good job of making the point that most trades are not good or bad, but fall into the grey area between the two. That being true what’s striking about the 2014-2015 reload was the complete disregard for clubhouse chemistry. Norris and Kemp were already regarded as clubhouse cancers. Myers and Upton were known to be passive underachievers. Put them together with hard to coach Gyorko and Alonzo and man that was an ugly team.
    And they proceeded to win 3 games LESS than they had the year before.

  3. Love the story. How about a story on how the Pads will use the DH? Myers? Naylor? Hosmer?

    Thanks again great site!

  4. For me it’s easy, the Braves won the trade. The Padres only had one so so year of Upton & the Braves have a very solid starter for years to come.

    1. The article failed to mention that Fried won 17 games in 2019 and lost 6 with a 4.02 ERA. He would have been the #1 on any team the Padres fielded. Losing him and Turner made these early trades a big fat F for the Padres. Come on. Get it right.

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