The trade, which sends Sabathia from the Cleveland Indians to the Brewers in exchange for slugging prospect Matt LaPorta, two minor league pitchers and a player to be named later, is good for both teams. The low-budget Indians were not expected to be able to sign Sabathia, who will be a free agent at the end of the season. Even with him the Tribe had stumbled to the second worst record in the AL this year.
Among Cleveland's biggest problems have been a lack of production from its corner outfield positions and the collapse of young second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera, who appeared to be a major find down the stretch last year. In LaPorta the Indians get a legitimate masher for one of their corner outfield spots, and the player to be named later is expected to be 21-year-old A-ball infielder Taylor Green. According to Baseball Prospectus' Kevin Goldstein the Indians want the extra time on Green to scout his play at second base, as he has spent most of his time at third base both this year and last. In addition to LaPorta and Green the Indians get 25-year-old lefty Zach Jackson, a marginal major leaguer who could fill in at the back of the rotation or serve as a second lefty in the bullpen, and 20-year-old fireballer Rob Bryson, a Sally League reliever who excites Goldstein due to his ability to miss bats (143 Ks in 109 minor league innings).
The big get, of course, is LaPorta. The seventh overall pick in the 2007 draft out of the University of Florida, LaPorta played first base in college and was moved to left field by the Brewers because of the presence of Prince Fielder. Though a disaster in the outfield last year due to a lack of experience, LaPorta has shown significant improvement this season and has even spent time in right field due to his strong throwing arm. Entering his first full professional season this year, the 23-year-old jumped straight to Double-A and has been crushing to the tune of a .291/.404/.584 line with 20 homers, 66 RBIs and 44 walks in 82 games.
Says Goldstein of LaPorta, "I talked to a scout about him just the other day and he said, 'Look, he's a thumper.' There's no question in his mind. The guy is a true middle-of-the-order hitter. That's not the kind of projection you put on a whole lot of players. When you do scouting and you project a role for a player, it's always 'on a championship team,' and LaPorta projects as a middle-of-the-order hitter on a championship team. He has a mature, advanced, major league-level approach. He has massive power. He is a machine. Offensively, it's not ridiculous to think he could be [Travis] Hafner-esque. I think he could hit big league pitching right now."
The Indians could easily move LaPorta to Triple-A upon delivery, give him a cup of coffee in September, and insert him into the major league lineup for Opening Day 2009, if not sooner.
In swapping LaPorta for Sabathia, the Brewers made the best of a bad situation. Last season Milwaukee lost the NL Central by two games, a difference mainly attributable to its terrible infield defense. The primary offender was rookie third baseman Ryan Braun. The catch was that Brewers never would have been even that close to the first-place Cubs without Braun's bat. Milwaukee solved that problem by moving Braun to left field for the 2008 season, but that once again blocked LaPorta, who had already been moved to left field in deference to Fielder. With Corey Hart finally living up to his potential in right field, and no DH thanks to former owner Bud Selig's still-curious decision to move Milwaukee into the National League a decade ago, LaPorta had nowhere to go. Not only that, but the Brewers still have another Braun/LaPorta type in 22-year-old third baseman Mat Gamel (.381/.443/.637 at Double-A this year), whom Goldstein described as "a lawn ornament" at the hot corner. Flipping LaPorta for a bona fide ace like Sabathia is just about the best solution the Brewers could have come up with. While it seems unlikely that the similarly low-budget Brewers will be able to re-sign Sabathia, who will hit the market as a 28-year-old lefty with more than 100 career wins, they'll get two draft picks in compensation if he signs elsewhere. In essence, then, the Brewers get a do-over on the LaPorta pick and will likely bring postseason baseball to Milwaukee for the first time in more than a quarter century in the meantime.
With Ben Sheets healthy for the first time in four years, the addition of Sabathia gives the Brewers a one-two rotation punch rivaled only by the Diamondbacks' Brandon Webb and Dan Haren among NL contenders. Even with Webb and Haren the Diamondbacks are struggling to hold on to first place in the weakest division in baseball. They currently sit atop the West with a losing record, just a half-game ahead of Joe Torre's Dodgers. Rather, the Brewers' biggest challenge for NL dominance resides in their own division: the current Central leaders and preseason pennant favorites, the Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs have the league's best offense and a solid pair of starters atop their rotation in Carlos Zambrano and former closer Ryan Dempster, but Dempster hasn't thrown more than 115 2/3 innings since 2002 and is at 111 entering today's action. Even if he survives his next hundred innings pitched Dempster is no match for an established ace like Sabathia. In the postseason it's pitching and defense that win ballgames. With the move of Braun to left field the Brewers have improved from a 13th-place finish in defensive efficiency (the defense's rate of turning balls in play into outs) in the NL last year to a third-place ranking in in '08. Now they have Sabathia.
Of course there are innings concerns about Sabathia as well. After years of keeping the annual odometer on his young arm below 200 innings pitched, the Indians finally let go of the reins last year and let the big guy throw 241 innings in the regular season followed by 15 1/3 more in the postseason. Those 256 1/3 innings were a third more than he had thrown the previous season and the most likely reason for Sabathia's rough start in 2008. Since going 0-3 with a 13.50 ERA in his first four starts, however, Sabathia has posted a 2.16 ERA with 109 strikeouts against just 20 walks and eight home runs in his last 14 outings, 10 of which were quality starts. Still, as Sabathia inches back toward 200 innings (he's at 122 1/3 now), one has to wonder if he'll begin to show fatigue the way he did on his way to posting an 8.80 ERA during last year's playoffs.
Whether or not Sabathia does wear down, the Brewers and their fans will be pleased enough to have their third playoff berth in franchise history, even if it has to come as a wild-card entry. And if Sabathia stays strong, Milwaukee very well could make it all the way to the World Series.