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July 8, 2008

Prospectus Today

Sabathia for LaPorta

by Joe Sheehan

Tonight in Milwaukee, Brewers fans will pack Miller Park for what they hope will be the start of a run that ends sometime in October. Despite some dalliances with the wild card in 2006 and 2007, the Brewers haven't been relevant on the national stage since 1992, when they chased the Blue Jays to the last weekend in the AL East before succumbing. That ends now, as CC Sabathia takes the mound against the Colorado Rockies, signaling the Brewers' intent not just to build a contender, but to be a championship team.

The trade that brought Sabathia to Milwaukee came together quickly, from the first rumors last week to its completion Sunday and announcement yesterday. As dancing partners go, the Brewers featured a combination of high-level prospects and a strong motivation to make a deal to improve their 2008 team. With Ben Sheets already expected to leave as a free agent, with the team in a virtual tie for the wild-card slot with the overachieving Cardinals, and with the memory of last year's second-half fade still lingering, Doug Melvin had every reason to try to win this year.

Getting Sabathia, one of the best starters in the game, upgrades the Brewers' rotation. In the short term, he replaces Jeff Suppan, now on the DL with elbow problems. It's Seth McClung's rotation spot that will eventually be in jeopardy, although the expected performances of the two right-handers are close enough that we can use either or both to estimate Sabathia's impact. The two have combined to allow 88 runs in 150 1/3 innings over 27 starts. That's an RA of 5.27 and about 5 2/3 IP per start. Sabathia has allowed 54 runs in 122 1/3 innings (3.94 RA), averaging a bit more than 6 2/3 IP per start. That includes Sabathia's clearly aberrational April; if you consider his true level to be what he's done in his last 14 starts, it's a 2.33 RA in 7 1/3 IP per. Regress that, split the difference-let's not pretend we can predict player performance to two decimal places over half a season-and you can expect that Sabathia is about a 3.00 ERA pitcher giving you seven innings a start.

The Brewers have 73 games left beginning tonight. Throw in the All-Star break and what that could mean, and Sabathia is probably looking at 15 or 16 starts for the Brewers. Let's say 15; that means the Brewers have traded for 105 innings in which Sabathia will allow 35 runs. That replaces 15 starts in which the Brewers could have expected about 85 innings and 50 runs. The 20 innings difference would probably be filled by back end pitchers allowing at least what McClung and Suppan did, so add another dozen runs, for 62.

By trading for Sabathia, the Brewers have probably saved themselves between 25 and 30 runs over the course of the rest of the season, making them between two and three wins better than they would have been without the deal. The marginal value of those wins could be astronomical, as there's an excellent chance the Brewers will reach the postseason by that margin or less, and a postseason appearance pays off in direct and indirect revenues for years. No matter how it actually turns out for the team, this deal was the right move at the right time for Doug Melvin.

For the Indians, the trade is their white flag on the 2008 season. Despite having a left-handed starter on the All-Star roster who isn't named Sabathia-the suprising Cliff Lee-the Indians are among the season's biggest disappointments. Let's go back two weeks:

The Indians are perfectly capable of not just making their season interesting, but extending it well into October. They should hold on to C.C. Sabathia because doing so helps them reach their goal: a championship in 2008.

Yeah. The Indians are 2-10 since I wrote that, having gone 2-4 against two teams from the bottom half of the NL, then losing six straight to the White Sox and Twins to fall 14 games out in the division. They still have a run differential (-6) that doesn't reflect their play, but their ability to lose games late-four of the 10 losses were pinned on relievers, and they led in four of the six divisional games they lost-has been matched by few teams this season. They weren't getting it done at the plate, either, with just 44 runs in those 12 games, three or fewer in half of them. Two weeks ago, holding Sabathia made sense. By July 6, trading him made more sense. Mark Shapiro had a significant asset that he couldn't hold on a team looking to 2009, and he had to convert it into value.

The package from the Brewers is built around Matt LaPorta. LaPorta, something of a surprise as the seventh pick in the 2007 draft, is a hitter who has adapted reasonably well to left field, but who will probably end up as a first baseman. The Brewers, of course, had no place to play him, as their corners are loaded with stars. The Indians, though, can use him in left field in the short term, and eventually move him to first base or DH depending on what happens with Ryan Garko's development and Travis Hafner's decline phase. Already 23, and 24 by Opening Day 2009, LaPorta's ETA is now. He has shown power, patience, and a good contact rate for his skill set at Double-A (63 strikeouts in 302 AB). He should be a middle of the lineup hitter for the Tribe very soon.

After LaPorta, the named prospects drop off a bit in value. Zach Jackson is a former supplemental number one pick of the Blue Jays. Now 25, he has had two mostly ineffective stints in the majors, and has spent 2008 being beaten like a drum at Nashville, losing his rotation spot early in the year. There's little to recommend him above Aaron Laffey or even Jeremy Sowers at this point, and he certainly ranks well behind Adam Miller in the Indians' system. He's roster filler, a starter who might pick up innings as the Indians play out the string.

Rob Bryson, the third man in, was the Brewers' tenth-best prospect this offseason in Kevin Goldstein's rankings. Something of a lottery ticket, Bryson is a raw right-hander with a live arm and not very much experience. He's performed well at low levels as a pro-143 strikeouts and 32 walks in 109 innings, mostly as a reliever-but as Kevin put it back in February, "Bryson's ceiling is considerably high, but he's also far from it." That hasn't changed in five months.

According to John Perrotto, the fourth player will be A-ball infielder Taylor Green, with the Indians waiting to see how he handles the transition to second base before committing to taking him as the PTBNL. The move is fairly critical, as Green isn't likely to have the bat, especially the power, to be a major league third baseman. He'd be the second-best prospect in this deal, which is damning with faint praise.

That, to me, is the biggest problem with this deal for the Indians. Mark Shapiro got a top-50 prospect in LaPorta, one who fills an organizational need and who could be in the team's lineup starting now. That's a good thing. The deal, though, is roughly Sabathia-for-LaPorta, and that doesn't seem like enough. It certainly doesn't seem like enough to pull the trigger on July 7. There are three-plus weeks to the deadline. There are at least 17 teams fighting for eight postseason slots, some of which have trigger-happy GMs and loaded farm systems. On July 31, I might argue that two months of CC Sabathia for six years of Matt LaPorta and some throw-ins is what the market priced him at. The same deal on July 7 means that not enough options were explored. This wasn't a Godfather offer, and it's one that absolutely would have been there three weeks from now. Mark Shapiro simply dealt Sabathia too soon, without letting the desperation of his fellow GMs drive up the price and get him a better deal.

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

Related Content:  Matt LaPorta,  The Who,  Brewers

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