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Will Justin Upton trade stain Kevin Towers as D-Backs GM?

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY SportsArizona Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers has been a MLB executive for 16 years. 

As the San Diego Padres GM, Towers oversaw four division champions and a trip to the World Series. During his first two years in Arizona, the D-Backs won a surprising division title after losing 97 games the previous season. 

Some might take issue with this, but it seems safe to say that Towers is rather darn good at his occupation. Guys generally don't stick around for 16 years in a job if they're terrible at it.

Yet despite Towers' impressive résumé, could he end up being defined as the general manager that traded Justin Upton while he was on the verge of becoming a major league superstar? 

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Three weeks into the 2013 season, this transaction isn't looking so good for Towers and the Diamondbacks.

Upton leads MLB with eight home runs and .852 slugging percentage. His 1.245 OPS is tops in the National League. He's a significant reason for the Atlanta Braves beginning their season with a 12-2 record, the best mark in baseball.

 

To be fair, it will be a few years before we can determine whether or not Towers really made a good trade. Dealing an established player typically brings prospects in return. It remains to be seen whether or not the young talent Arizona received will develop into major league contributors.

But the initial reaction is to say Towers didn't make a good deal because he traded away the best player. Even worse, the D-Backs didn't get a future star in the exchange.

That judgment might depend on which minor league analysts you choose to follow. According to Baseball America, Arizona received three of the Braves' top 10 prospects. That sounds like a pretty good return. Yet ESPN's Keith Law viewed Randall Delgado as a future back-of-the-rotation starter, Zeke Spruill as a pitcher that doesn't miss many bats with his stuff, Nick Ahmed as a great fielding shortstop that doesn't hit and Brandon Drury as a non-factor. 

Arizona did receive an established major league player in Martin Prado. Prado is an extremely valuable player who can play third base, second base and left field. This season, he's even played an inning at shortstop for the D-Backs.

For a team that's been seeking a starting third baseman since Mark Reynolds and his 200 strikeouts per season were traded to the Baltimore Orioles after the 2010 season, Prado provided much needed stability. He's a near-.300 career hitter who doesn't strike out, knows how to draw walks and even hits for some power. 

But while Prado is the sort of player every MLB team needs, an exceptional role player who can help tie a lineup together, he's not really a difference maker. He's not the sort of hitter that can change a game's outcome with one swing or carry a struggling batting order, as Upton has for the Braves this season.

Yet perhaps Arizona doesn't want a star. More specifically, they don't appear to want someone who carries those sorts of expectations and might wilt under them. Maybe the D-Backs don't want to cater to someone who believes he's the best player on a team and should be treated accordingly. 

That's speculation, of course. But judging from the remarks several D-Backs players and executives made to CBSSports.com's Danny Knobler in a recent article, one could draw such conclusions. 

Teammate Eric Hinske referred to Prado as "the best player in baseball." Owner Ken Kendrick said the D-Backs were "proud" to have Prado. Towers added that Prado "always has the right answer." What did he mean by that?

"Where do you want to hit in the order?" Towers said to Knobler. "Wherever. Where am I playing today, second base? OK."

Of course, that might just be an outright compliment for Prado and not a veiled criticism of Upton. But when a team trades a 25-year-old player who put up MVP-caliber numbers in two of his first five full MLB seasons, it tends to raise an eyebrow. Such a transaction is even more perplexing when Upton's contract situation is taken into consideration.

Upton was under contract for three more seasons for a total cost of $38.5 million. An average of $12.8 million is less than the $15 million per season the Braves agreed to pay Justin's brother, B.J., for the next five years. That sort of cost control is what nearly every MLB team covets in a young player. Yet the D-Backs traded it away.

Towers spent most of his two years as Arizona's GM constantly dangling Upton in front of his fellow big league executives. It was like his hobby. Some of us play Solitaire or check Facebook when we're bored. Towers would put Upton back on the trade block and keep the MLB trade rumor mill churning. 

Most of the offseason scuttlebutt said that Towers wanted a major league shortstop in return for Upton. The Rangers' Jurickson Profar and Braves' Andrelton Simmons were among Arizona's rumored targets. Yet neither team was willing to give up such a player for Upton. Under those circumstances, most GMs would hold on to their star. If you can't get the deal you want, then don't make a deal. Yet Towers was obviously determined to trade Upton, even if he couldn't get the shortstop he coveted. 

(Maybe Didi Gregorius, the shortstop acquired in a three-team deal with the Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians, is that player. But there are questions as to whether he'll hit well enough to be a starting MLB shortstop.) 

Did Towers want to trade Upton because he thought he'd get a load of young talent in return? Did he and others in the D-Backs' organization think he wasn't enough of a team player? Did Arizona manager Kirk Gibson dislike Upton's approach to the game, preferring that his young outfielder go all out and slam into a wall when necessary, as a source told Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal? Was Upton not "grinding and gritty" enough? 

Towers might be right. Perhaps it wouldn't have worked out for Upton in Arizona this year and he needed the proverbial change in scenery. Maybe Upton needed to play in a place where the expectations placed upon him weren't so high. It's entirely possible that playing with his brother makes a huge difference too. 

However, when Towers says, "We needed a new identity, instead of being Justin Upton and the Diamondbacks," it implies that he — and Gibson — want everyone to buy into a team concept. They don't want anyone to stand out. 

Maybe that whack-a-mole approach to roster construction will ultimately work out for the D-Backs. However, this trade could also end up whacking Towers. 

With an 8-6 record going into Thursday's play, Arizona is in the early NL West race. Success in upcoming series against the Colorado Rockies and San Francisco Giants could ensure that they'll stay in contention. Winning is the only thing that will provide affirmation and make Towers look good in the end. 

Ian Casselberry

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is a columnist for The Outside Corner and the managing editor of The AP Party. He has written for Yahoo! Sports, MLive.com, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, and provides analysis for several sports talk radio shows each week. He currently lives in Asheville, NC.

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