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July 7, 2008

Transaction of the Day

Beating the Deadline by Weeks

by Christina Kahrl


IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

CLEVELAND INDIANS
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Acquired OF/1B-R Matt LaPorta, LHP Zach Jackson, RHP Rob Bryson, and a PTBNL from the Brewers for LHP C.C. Sabathia. [7/7]

Going into the season, I was given to saying that the Indians were the most fragile of the obvious contenders. There wasn't any particular soothsaying or genius involved, considering how much they were dependent on their seemingly reliably-problematic problem players getting turned around-guys like Jhonny Peralta and Cliff Lee-and I was in the ranks of the very skittish over the future Travis Hafner. Add those concerns to the open questions over how well the Tribe would score runs when they didn't really have great options in their outfield corners, traditional run-producing slots. There's no joy to be taken in being right in worrying, and for every happy development (like Lee's turnaround and Aaron Laffey's readiness for the rotation), the setbacks seem to outnumber them several times over. Peralta remains in an exasperating holding pattern, circling around being a good ballplayer without ever quite getting back to it. The extent of Hafner's breakdown on top of his already depressing decline at the plate last year could not be anticipated, not in terms of the Marianas Trench he dug for himself at the plate relative to his past feats. Who could anticipate Victor Martinez's becoming more Ausmusian at the plate as well as behind it after all the hard work the organization invested in getting his catch-and-throw skills up to snuff? That Ryan Garko's bat would flatline? That offers of their kingdom for a second baseman effectively turned out as badly as another former chief executive's desperation-day offer?

So, just as they did in 2006, the relatively combustible Shapiro Indians endure a setback season, and it's become increasingly obvious that this particular team relying on this particular alignment of talent was combustible. Happily, just as they did over the offseason between 2006 and 2007, Mark Shapiro and his team in the front office are working to make of the situation what they can, so that the club has a shot at surviving the setbacks of the present and the mistakes of the recent past and also have a shot at outlasting the Tigers or White Sox, two old teams with win-now priorities and few tomorrows, in the AL Central in the years to come. In contrast to the chaos in Seattle, where the morass of thwarted ambition seems to have sunk the Mariners' ability to work their way through their problems, here the general managers moved quickly to convert short-time Tribesmen into long-term assets.

So, they've flipped the most desirable starting pitcher possibly on the market, the AL's reigning Cy Young winner. They got to do so in a seller's market, when all sorts of teams still harbor ambitions of wild-card glory. It might increasingly be the case in the industry that a free agent-to-be doesn't necessarily bring back all that much in return, because more and more teams understand that at the deadline they're getting just two months of playing time. However, on top of already having a rare talent available to deal, and that so many contenders need pitching help, the Indians maximized Sabathia's value to his new team by moving him weeks before the deadline. In doing so, it looks like they maximized the value they've received in return, and set themselves up to address at least one major problem that was likely to handicap future Indians success.

We'll set aside discussing the PTBNL for the time being, because I'll end up evaluating him once he's named, but this is already a great deal for the Indians on the basis of what's already been received in return. Bryson rated a tenth-place mention on Kevin Goldstein's list of the Brewers' top 11 prospects coming into the season, and working in the system's shared-workload system in Low-A, he'd continued to impress with plus stuff while alternating between long relief outings, spot starts, and the odd late-game pressure situation. Improved mastery of his off-speed stuff will define his future role, but he's been walking fewer men in the last month (four in his last 14 IP), and anybody who's striking out close to 12 batters per nine is going to attract interest. Although a bit chunky, he's still far removed from his 21st birthday, so it's safe to say he still has very interesting upside potential.

The more advanced arm received in the deal is only slightly less interesting, although much less promising. That isn't to say that Jackson didn't have promise, however-back when he was the third player coming to Milwaukee in the Lyle Overbay deal in December 2005, he was a fast-moving lefty who seemed almost ready to make it, having blossomed at Texas A&M and earning a first-round selection by the Jays in 2004. Maybe he was another example of the Jays' conservatism in relying too heavily on not-so-safe "safe" college talent, maybe the change in organizations didn't really agree with him, and maybe getting passed by so many of the Brewers' homegrown prospects wore on him, but he struggled to repeat the success he'd enjoyed at lower levels in Nashville at Triple-A in either of the last two seasons, and he took additional drubbings during his brief stint in the Brewers' rotation in 2006. If you're generous, the upside here is that he might turn into the next Doug Davis, but it's hard to see it when you've got a guy who's given up 54 runs in 57 1/3 IP for Nashville, not to mention 103 baserunners and a ten-spot as far as bombs allowed. Initially, he was starting for the Sounds, but three disaster starts and only one quality outing in five got him bumped back to the pen, which was followed by a five-homer relief appearance. As a reliever, he's started generating a lot more ground-ball outs while still getting his head handed to him. He wasn't fooling lefties, so any situational applications seem sketchy for the time being, to be polite. His assortment's pretty much the picture of adequacy: a high-80s fastball, merely decent slider and change, and a strike-thrower who seems to be catching way too much of the zone of late. At best, he's a project, but it's going to be up to him and what he does in the next few months to retain a spot on a 40-man roster.

Which brings us to LaPorta, the real prize, the genuine article, the solution to one of the Indians' active problems-getting offense from an outfield corner. An eventual future at first base or DH might be in the cards, but for right now, the Indians can exploit the Brewers' ambition in making LaPorta an outfielder after picking him in the first round last summer. While his defense probably isn't going to ever really turn the corner, the Brewers didn't just settle for challenging with left-moving him to right this spring. It seems a safe bet that he'll wind up in left however, given his limitations, and the generally good defensive skills of the Tribe's collection of in-house options for the non-LaPorta corner of their future outfield. As Manny Ramirez or Pat Burrell exemplify, left-field defense is a resumé pip you can live without as long as you're getting plenty of mash in the mix. There seems little question that he can deliver as a hitter-he's pasting in the Southern League at a .288/.402/.576 clip, walking in 11.5 percent of his plate appearances (and getting hit a Bayloresque 15 times to boot), and doing more damage against right-handers (.301/.420/.602), which you might take to suggest that his overall numbers might improve once he gets enough exposure to pro-caliber southpaws. If he does that, he'll eventually help provide the Indians the balance they've been hoping to add to a lineup that leans a bit to the left. The key is that he's only 23, and will probably be ready for a taste of The Show in September, and for the job in left to be his for keeps come the next Opening Day.

What that means for the other Indians in the immediate future will be interesting to watch. Between Shin-Soo Choo, Ben Francisco, and Franklin Gutierrez, cobbling together a decent platoon in right isn't too improbable, but it won't add up to a combination that does more than just leave the Indians covered at the position, not really counting it a major source of strength. So beyond whatever reasonable hopes they may harbor for LaPorta's development, they're still going to have to get Victor Martinez and Hafner and Peralta to deliver on their commitments, or investigate some even more aggressive overhauling of the roster. In the rotation in Sabathia's place, we'll get treated to the Jekyll/Hyde contributions of Jeff Weaver (picked up as a decisively-discarded, free-time-enabled very free free agent). Until they get the benefit of the eventual return of Fausto Carmona, they're really down to Lee, Laffey, Weaver, and marking time until Paul Byrd goes away. If that sounds like a lot of hooks before the sixth inning's out and a few extra blowouts, Tribe season ticket holders and television viewers should plan accordingly. If anyone breaks down for any extended period of time, they may be reduced seeing if Jeremy Sowers will ever get back on track, or if he's going to be reduced to pyrrhic pugilism with Jackson for that last slot. (Suffice to say that Adam Miller's latest breakdown and Chuck Lofgren's implosion at Akron were poorly timed.)

Thanks to Kevin Goldstein for his input.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
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Acquired LHP C.C. Sabathia from the Indians for OF/1B-R Matt LaPorta, LHP Zach Jackson, RHP Rob Bryson, and a PTBNL; placed RHP Jeff Suppan on the 15-day DL (elbow irritation). [7/7]

As win-now moves go, I don't think anyone's going to do any better in the next three weeks or so than Doug Melvin just did right here. Admittedly, the price wasn't cheap, but acquiring an ace starter who makes Ben Sheets' too-frequent absences that much more survivable does wonders for the Brewers' in-season shot at the division title or the wild card and potentially makes them an October nightmare for the rest of the league, should they get there. With Sabathia in the fold, the Brewers become the one team with two starters in the top ten in SNLVAR (not that having Sabathia and Lee was doing the Tribe that much good in the standings), and immediately become the team nobody should want to face in a short series.

While it remains to be seen who the PTBNL will be, from the Brewers' perspective this was the kind of package they could afford to give up. On some level, you could see LaPorta as meat on the hoof waiting to be converted to something more sustaining for this year's bid for post-season glory, especially after the decision to move Ryan Braun to the outfield (although to their credit, the Brewers did keep their options open by putting LaPorta in right field at Huntsville). Bryson's exactly the sort of talent you package-a live arm with upside, but so far from seeing sunlight that he may never make it through the injury nexus and become more than a trivia answer in Parma watering hole to be named later. Jackson was in danger of getting bumped off of the 40-man. So to a great extent, it's about trading the future of a blue-chip almost-ready bat for a staff ace for the next three months. That's high-stakes poker, but the price is right. It's Melvin's way of doing exactly what he can to make sure that the franchise doesn't settle for another second-place finish in their division, and another games-free October.

The timing works out nicely as well, not just because Sabathia will start tomorrow night, but also in that the Brewers were obviously well aware that Suppan's elbow might involve a trip to the DL, and best to pull the trigger before your desperation gets any more broadly known, and before you have to start asking Shapiro about Jeff Weaver. Eventually, however, the Brewers will have Suppan back, creating a nice problem if Seth McClung's still doing well enough as a fifth starter type while David Bush and Manny Parra round out the rotation behind their twin aces, Sabathia and Sheets. Yes, it's cool that they've got two power lefties, and Sheets, and two command guys like Bush and Suppan, and McClung's ability to cook with gas-even absent Yovani Gallardo and with Carlos Villanueva in the pen, they can attack opposing lineups in all sorts of ways. Contrast that with a Cubs rotation that still has to lean on Jason Marquis while hoping that Ryan Dempster doesn't turn into a pumpkin, and it becomes that much more encouraging that this time, maybe Milwaukee can take those guys.

Lastly, there's the odd note about Sabathia's decision to drop the periods in his first name. As these things go, it's not that much less silly than Prince's becoming formerly known as Prince, and not really as tactical- and tax-minded as Sean Combs' relentless renamings, but hey, if he wants to call himself Twinkletoes or HR Pufnstuf (no periods!) or Colonel Mustard, as long as he does it in the ballpark to the other guys with the might of his full arsenal, I suspect the good people in Beertown will accommodate him this sort of elaborate self-indulgence.


Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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