Brewers Land Sabathia

The Deal
C.C. Sabathia, the reigning AL Cy Young award winner, packed his bags for Milwaukee after the Brewers traded four players—headlined by 2007 first-round pick Matt LaPorta—to the Indians for the free-agent-to-be lefty. Cleveland also received righthander Rob Bryson, lefthander Zach Jackson and a player to be named.

UPDATE: The Indians selected Double-A outfielder Michael Brantley as the player to be named (Oct. 3, 2008.) According to Brewers correspondent Tom Haudricourt, the two teams had theunderstanding that if Milwaukee made the playoffs, the Indians would chose the
player. If the Brewers did not make the playoffs, they would select the
player to go to Cleveland.

The Big Leaguer
The Indians selected Sabathia out of Vallejo (Calif.) High with the 20th overall pick of the 1998 draft, and he ascended to a spot in Cleveland’s rotation in 2001—at age 20—after just two and a half years in the minors. It’s a station the 27-year-old lefty had held continuously, barring a few bumps and bruises along the way, until the time of the trade. In addition to the Cy Young Award, Sabathia went 106-71, 3.83 for the Indians, striking out 1,265 and walking 498 in 1,529 innings. He ranks fifth in franchise history in strikeouts and second in strikeout-to-walk ratio, at 2.54-to-1. He set the franchise single-season record, at 5.65-to-1, last season while going 19-7, 3.21 with a 209-34 K-BB ratio in 241 innings.

Sabathia finished second to Ichiro Suzuki in 2001 AL Rookie of the Year balloting after going 17-5, 4.39 with 171 strikeouts in 180 innings, and has improved steadily in nearly every facet of his game since then. From 2005 to 2007, he posted a 3.47 ERA and rates of 7.7 strikeouts, 2.0 walks and 0.8 home runs per nine innings. Despite standing 6-foot-7 and weighing 290 pounds, Sabathia is an exceptional athlete, which allows him to consistently repeat his mechanics and locate his three pitches. His fastball ranges from the low 90s up to 96 mph, and he complements it with a vicious slider that gives lefties fits and an above-average changeup he uses to combat righties. Sabathia also has fared well as a hitter, batting .300/.317/.475 in 40 career at-bats, and that ability now comes into play in the National League.

The Prospects
The seventh overall pick out of Florida in 2007, LaPorta already has cranked 32 home runs and slugged .616 in 411 pro at-bats, and his plus-plus power (and strong batting eye) will be more than enough to hold down a big league corner job—it’s just not clear which corner that will be. Drafted as a first baseman, LaPorta shifted immediately to the outfield because the Brewers had Prince Fielder entrenched at the big league level. While LaPorta has solid defensive instincts in the outfield, he lacks the foot speed and throwing arm to be anything but playable on an outfield corner. He’s 23 already, having been drafted as a senior, but LaPorta has acclimated himself to Double-A pitching quickly by batting .288/.402/.576 with a Southern League-leading 20 home runs, 66 RBIs, 45 walks and 63 strikeouts for Huntsville.

One of five Brewers’ 2006 draftees to sign as a draft-and-follow in 2007, Bryson has worked almost exclusively as a reliever since turning pro for $300,000. His two-pitch mix—a fastball that can touch 95 mph and an above-average slider—seems better suited to the role. Though his ERA is just 4.25 this season for low Class A West Virginia, the 20-year-old Bryson has struck out 73 batters in 55 innings, while walking 20, and now has fanned 11.8 batters per nine innings in 109 pro innings.

Jackson, 25, has twice been traded for a big leaguer. The first time came in December 2005 when the Blue Jays traded him to Milwaukee for Lyle Overbay. Jackson has struggled in his third Triple-A engagement this season, going 1-5, 7.83 for Nashville, with 33 strikeouts and 18 walks in 56 innings, compiled mostly in relief. He’s now 28-23, 4.62 in 509 career minor league innings, with 349 strikeouts and 171 walks. His ERA in the big leagues hovers at 5.36 through 42 innings. Jackson, who previously relied almost exclusively on a fastball and a cutter, began throwing what he calls a “split changeup” this season, and while the results have been mixed, he has markedly improved his groundout-to-fly out mark to 1.82.

Brantley, 21, rarely strikes out and, in fact, the lefthanded batter has walked more than he has whiffed at every stop in his pro career. A seventh-round pick from Fort Pierce (Fla.) Central High in 2005, he batted .319/.395/.398 in 420 at-bats for Huntsville, but his contact-oriented approach limited him to just four homers and 17 doubles in 106 games. Brantley is an average-at-best center fielder who also has dabbled in left field and first base. He’s the son of Mickey Brantley, who played for the Mariners from 1986 to 1989.

Quick Take
With the Brewers in possession of the National League’s second-best record, and with the club just 3 1/2 games behind the Central-leading Cubs, general manager Doug Melvin decided to trade a bit of Milwaukee’s future for improved odds at making the playoffs in the present. It’s a fair tradeoff when you consider the Brewers haven’t made the playoffs since 1982, their 83 wins last season are the most they’ve had since 1992, and they’re set at first base with Fielder and have young, righthanded-hitting corner outfield regulars already in place with Ryan Braun and Corey Hart.

In the final year of his two-year, $17.75 million extension, Sabathia has indicated that he’ll test the free-agent market at season’s end. The Brewers other top pitcher, righthander Ben Sheets, could follow the same route. If both leave, the Brewers could net four additional premium picks, giving them draft bonanzas in consecutive years. But for an organization that has struggled so mightily to develop pitchers (witness Yovani Gallardo’s knee injury this spring), that reward would be bittersweet.

For a team going nowhere, like the 37-51 Indians, cashing in Sabathia for one blue-chip prospect (LaPorta) and two potentially useful relievers (Bryson, Jackson) is the right move. In the long term, LaPorta could be a middle-of-the-order presence for the Indians; in the short term, he could provide an alternative to Ryan Garko, who has hit just .244/.324/.342 this season.

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