Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Adíos to the Ace

I always seem to fall behind when it comes to covering major transactions. Obviously every one on the internet has commented on the Sabathia trade by now, but rather than strictly defer to some of the bigger Tribe blogs out there (who did a great job, by the way) I’ll see if I can come up with any new thoughts on the trade. Someone out there on the internets must think I know what I’m talking about, so I’ll provide a write up for you, the esteemed reader.

If you haven’t found out by now that C.C. (CC?) Sabathia has been traded to Milwaukee then you probably aren’t reading this article due to a lack of internet access. Cleveland received a total of four players in the deal, including an outfielder/first baseman, two pitchers, and a player to be named later (more on those guys later). After reading just about every scrap of analysis and opinion on the trade, I’m still convinced Shapiro made a good move here. Of course, you can’t please everyone, especially when you have the legendary Bartolo Colon trade on your resume like Shap does.

One criticism I’ve heard about the trade is that Cleveland should have waited until closer to the trade deadline in an attempt to drive up the price and woo more suitors. If Sabathia were more than just a four month rental, this might not have been a bad idea. However, Doug Melvin and Mark Shapiro moved quickly to make the exchange final, as it was mutually beneficial to do so.

First, the Brewers gain three or four extra starts from Sabathia, which would have been quite a broadside against division leader Chicago before they acquired Rich “ace bandage” Harden.

The Tribe’s benefits are not entirely obvious, but two possible nightmare scenarios were Sabathia getting injured or Milwaukee going on a massive slide before July 31. Falling from 3.5 games back to 8.5 in such a competitive division would make many GMs think twice before going all-in on a trade. Trade rumors indicate every contending team at least inquired about CC, with the Dodgers, Tampa Bay, and Boston among the supposed leaders (not confirmed, but it's irrelevant now).

Despite the plethora of trade packages available, Milwaukee’s fit Cleveland’s needs the best from the start and they seemed to express the strongest desire to deal. According to Shapiro, his staff had started shopping around three weeks before the deal went down, so I think it’s safe to say they knew exactly what was available before making a final decision. The fact that so many teams wanted Sabathia’s services probably helped drive up the price quite a bit. Even though Cleveland did not receive any current Major Leaguers, the centerpiece of the trade is about as good as it gets in terms of immediate value and potential.

The other criticism circulating is that Cleveland did not receive enough in return. I was surprised at how many people insisted on using the Colon trade as the benchmark for this deal. The circumstances for the two trades are very different and frankly, comparing any trade to the Colon trade is just unfair (you rarely see a return of value as successful as it was for Colon).

The biggest similarity is that Colon and Sabathia were both at the top of their game when dealt. Colon was 10-4 with a 2.55 ERA and 75 K, leading the AL in both innings and complete games heading into the All Star break. Like Milwaukee, the 2002 Expos were desperate for a playoff berth and were willing to empty the farm to win now. It’s important to remember that Colon was under team control through the end of the 2003 season because of a team option.

Here’s the prospect package Cleveland received back in 2002:

Brandon Phillips, SS – 20 years old

Ranked the 20th best prospect by Baseball America in 2002, recently promoted to AAA; regarded as Montreal’s best overall prospect.

Cliff Lee, P – 23 years old

Was a decent prospect in Montreal’s system, but was in the midst of a breakout season at Class-AA.

Grady Sizemore, OF – 19 years old

Noted for his athleticism, the relatively unknown Sizemore was struggling in the low level Florida State League with a .258 BA and no HR.

So, one elite position player, a raw, high-ceiling pitcher, and a Class-A prospect with good athletic skills from a very desperate Expos GM (they were facing contraction in ’02) in exchange for a 29 year old ace with a year and a half guaranteed contract in a pre-Zito free agent market.

Why would anyone expect a similar return for Sabathia? I fail to see the logic in exercising such high expectations for the Sabathia trade when your baseline is a six year old trade in a vastly different market that is arguably one of the five greatest trades in franchise history. Moving on….

The Return

Below is a brief description of the three known prospects obtained from Milwaukee:

Matt LaPorta, OF/1B – 23 years old

A 22 88 10 .318 .392 .750 1.142
AA 23 302 20 .288 .402 .576 .978

LaPorta was ranked as the 23rd best prospect by Baseball America to open the 2008 season. He primarily played 1B in college and was named the 2007 Southeastern Conference Player of the Year with Florida and was a 1st Team All-American at DH. The Brewers drafted him with the seventh overall pick in 2007.

Despite struggling in the outfield and being a natural first baseman, Milwaukee shifted LaPorta to the outfield in the minor leagues. The move made sense for Milwaukee, since they had Prince Fielder entrenched at 1B. LaPorta became a tradable commodity for Milwaukee after the emergence of corner outfielders Ryan Braun and Corey Hart.

This does not discount LaPorta’s value though, as he is far and away the best offensive prospect in a deep Brewer’s farm system. According to Jay at LGT, “LaPorta immediately becomes the best prospect in the Indians organization, or at worst a very close second to Triple-A LHP David Huff, another first-rounder having an outstanding season.”

There’s an excellent chance LaPorta will be contributing in the Majors by 2009. Cleveland will probably evaluate him in Buffalo before promoting him, but don’t let his Class-AA tag fool you. LaPorta is the real deal and should fill in a major hole in the Tribe’s offense for years to come.

It will be interesting to see how LaPorta’s presence affects Ryan Garko’s future with Cleveland. Garko is having a terrible season where he was supposed to be a major cog in the offense. I would not be surprised if Garko is traded before the start of the 2009 season, but Cleveland would definitely be selling low at this point.

Rob Bryson, RHP - 20 years old

Level Age IP ERA WHIP K / BB HR / IP
Rk 19 54.0 2.67 1.13 5.83 .037
A 20 55.0 4.25 1.15 3.65 .054

Bryson is only 20 years old and has not progressed past Class-A yet. As such, it’s difficult to draw much from his one and a half seasons of low minor league ball. Fortunately, Tony Lastoria obtained a scouting report from Brian Kapellusch and was kind enough to post it. Here’s what Kapellusch had to say on the young righty:

Draft & Follow guy, with a really great strikeout rate. He's got a very plus slider, and a decent fastball. I think he projects as a reliever, possibly a closer, but I suppose he could start if he developed a third pitch. Obviously he's only in A-ball, so he's got a way to go, but the Brewers wouldn't have signed him as a DFE player if they didn't think he was worth it.

Zach Jackson, LHP - 25 years old

Level Age IP ERA WHIP K / BB HR / IP
MLB 23 38.1 5.40 1.62 1.57 .157
AAA 24 169.2 4.46 1.46 1.92 .076
AAA 25 57.1 7.85 1.73 1.88 .174
MLB (MIL) 25 3.2 4.91 1.91 0.5 0.00

seems like a typical throw in player and I think his stats speak for themselves. He may be used as a long reliever for the remainder of 2008, but I doubt we’ll be seeing him in Cleveland next season unless he makes some major improvements in AAA.

Player to be Named Later

The PTBNL is actually a crucial part to this deal, but major media outlets have been glossing over it for some reason. According to a report by Castrovince, "it is believed the player to be named will either be Class A third baseman Taylor Green or Double-A outfielder Michael Brantley, both of whom are considered prime prospects."

Part of the reason I waited to write about the trade was because I was waiting to find out who the second major piece of the deal was. Apparently, Cleveland has until the end of the regular season to make their decision, but I doubt they’ll linger past the July 31 trade deadline. The Front Office has been knee deep in scouting reports the past few weeks, so they probably have a good idea of who they want and are just wrapping up some loose ends.

See Ya CC

On a personal note, I’m very sad to see Sabathia leave. He was by far the most electric and accomplished pitcher to ever take the mound for Cleveland during the Jacobs Field era and will be missed. I had been bracing for his departure since Spring Training, so I guess any frustration I might have felt in this case has already eroded away.

In a way, Sabathia’s departure isn’t much different than Thome or Ramirez or any of the other Free Agency Villains Cleveland fans usually bring up. Sabathia would have certainly left for more money and to be closer to his California home (the latter I can’t blame him for), yet most fans still seem fairly warm towards CC (myself included). I guess the fact he was traded first and we actually got some value back for one our departing stars makes a big difference in how the situation is perceived. Baseball is weird like that.

I am glad Sabathia was able to experience one more playoff run in a Cleveland uniform and finally win his Cy Young award (I knew he’d win one eventually). So adíos CC and good luck in Milwaukee. Just don’t sign with New York or Boston, ok?

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