BY DAVID O’BRIEN AND CARROLL ROGERS
After two months of swirling trade rumors, Justin Upton awoke to the best possible scenario Thursday morning and this text message from his brother B.J. Upton:
“Did this really just happen?”
The Atlanta Braves had kicked off their offseason by making free agent center fielder B.J. Upton a club-record $75 million richer. They just capped it by making him even happier. They traded for his younger brother, sending All-Star Martin Prado, right-hander Randall Delgado and three prospects to Arizona for Justin Upton and third baseman Chris Johnson.
What B.J. first jokingly pleaded for over a steak dinner with Braves general manager Frank Wren in November didn’t seem likely at the time because Arizona had been asking for star shortstop Andrelton Simmons in return.
But with time and a failed attempt to trade Upton to Seattle, Arizona’s asking price began to fall, and the Braves made another run at it. Talks intensified Monday and continued until Wren and Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers found a fit.
The Braves exchanged one more year from Prado, who is eligible for free agency after the season, Delgado, and minor league infielders Nick Ahmed and Brandon Drury and right-hander Zeke Spruill (a Kell High graduate), for the next three years of an outfield made up of Upton, Upton and Jason Heyward.
“We’re extremely excited to add a talent of the level of Justin Upton to our outfield,” Wren said to 29 media members on an afternoon conference call. “(He’s) a young dynamic player that arguably gives us one of the best outfields in the game.”
The Uptons are the first set of brothers ever to be drafted No. 1 (Justin by Arizona in 2005) and No. 2 overall (B.J. by Tampa in 2002). They were the first brothers to record 20 steals and 20 home runs in a season. They hit their career 100th home runs on the same night last August but in cities 1,000 miles apart.
Now they’ll be together, the fifth set of brothers to play for the Atlanta Braves, joining Hank and Tommie Aaron, J.D. and Tim Drew, Rick and Mickey Mahler and Phil and Joe Niekro.
“It was a dream of ours to play together,” said Justin Upton, whose parents Manny and Yvonne were visiting his Phoenix home and got the good news when he came downstairs Thursday morning. “I didn’t think that it would be this early in our careers, but the opportunity presented itself now. This is our time to take full advantage of it, play for a great organization with a lot of history. We’re excited.”
The only other time the Upton brothers were teammates was in fall travel ball with the Tidewater Mets growing up in Chesapeake, Va. Justin was in ninth grade and a self-proclaimed bench warmer while B.J., then a senior, played with the likes of Ryan Zimmerman and David Wright.
Now at the age of 25, the younger Upton is a star in his own right. He finished fourth in the National League MVP vote two years ago with 31 homers, 88 RBIs and 21 stolen bases.
When the Braves mapped out their wish list at a meeting in October, looking for star power with money to spend after the retirement of Chipper Jones, they put a slide up denoting they were looking for “that guy.”
“The description of ‘that guy’ is someone that could hit third, could give us right-handed power, be a young dynamic middle of the order type hitter,” Wren said. “And Justin fits that bill.”
Both Uptons do, and together, Wren thinks, they can be even better. The Braves invested another $38.5 million over three seasons in Justin, thinking a little brotherly competition can “drive them. I think it will push them.”
Heyward is eager to see how far all three outfielders can push each other. He’s been following trade rumors almost as closely as an Upton. When he woke to the news Thursday, he texted B.J. first thing, saying: “Hey, let’s go.”
Overnight, since his previous text message to B.J., the Braves had put together one of — if not the — most intriguing outfield in the majors.
“I feel like ours is set apart by the fact that we have 30-30 potential all over it,” said Heyward, who includes the Nationals and Angels outfielders in that conversation.
As excited as Heyward was about the acquisition, he was surprised to hear it came at the expense of the well-respected Prado. Most speculation had centered on pitching prospects.
For that, Heyward dialed the phone.
“I thanked him for everything he’s done for me as a person as a player, on and off the field,” Heyward said. “(I) let him know that he still has me as a friend, family member. People like him don’t come along every day.”
Without Prado, the Braves will likely go with a platoon of newcomer Johnson and Juan Francisco at third base, and they’ll have Simmons as an option to lead off.
Upton has hit third, fourth and fifth in his career, but he’s not concerned with where he’s going to hit or what number he’s going to wear. He was told his old No. 10 is off limits: “That’s Chipper’s number.”
As for moving from right to left field? “(Heyward) is a Gold Glover. He’s got hardware. He can stay in right field. I’ll make the adjustment.”
He’s just happy knowing his brother will be close by.
“The energy you bring to the yard every day, to be there with somebody you’re comfortable with, that’ll help tremendously,” he said.
His brother feels the same way. B.J. Upton is already counting down the days until April 1 and the season-opener against the Phillies.
“It’s amazing,” B.J. said Thursday evening. “To get a chance to play with J is unbelievable. I always hoped it would happen but never dreamed it would happen so soon. I can’t wait to run out there Opening Day next to him.” ___
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