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The Shaun Marcum Trade: Brewers Perspective

On Sunday night, the Brewers agreed to trade top prospect Brett Lawrie to the Toronto Blue Jays for SP Shaun Marcum, as first broken by Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

This trade might not be treated as a blockbuster deal, but it certainly qualifies as high profile. It’s very rare for teams to swap #1 prospects and #1 starting pitchers, and that’s exactly what happened here. Although the loss of Lawrie will certainly be a blow to the Brewers farm system, there are two key reasons why the Brewers decided to deal the Canadian back to his homeland in exchange for pitching help in the form of Marcum.

1. The Brewers are both poor and shallow at starting pitcher.

This is the obvious one. Ever since CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets left after the 2008 season, the Brewers haven’t been able to put together anything even resembling a decent MLB starting rotation. The 2009 unit featured a developing Yovani Gallardo, but Jeff Suppan and Braden Looper provided 64 starts of complete disaster, combining for -1.6 WAR. 2010 saw those two demons exorcised, but a poor inaugural season from Randy Wolf, injuries to Doug Davis, and general awfulness from Manny Parra and Dave Bush resulted in another inept staff.

Effectively, at the end of the 2010 season, the only three starters on the Brewers depth chart were Gallardo, Wolf, and Chris Narveson, who had a decent run to end the year and finished with 1.5 WAR. The farm system’s best products, such as Jake Odorizzi, are still at least a season away. With no chance at Cliff Lee and with mostly scraps available, an impact pitcher like Marcum, who has the added bonus of two years of reasonable, arbitration-discounted team control remaining, was the best course of action to fill that hole.

Marcum posted 3.5 WAR last season in his first year back from Tommy John surgery, and although it may be optimistic to project him to do it again, even a 2.5 WAR pitcher would be a huge boost for the Brewers. At this point, they’re likely inserting Marcum over a pitcher who is below replacement level, and if the Brewers want any chance to compete – given the weakness of the NL Central and the power of the Milwaukee offense, there is a chance – somebody around that level was completely necessary.

2. Brett Lawrie is potentially blocked at the three positions he could most likely play in the future.

Or, to put it another way, Lawrie bears a striking resemblance to Matt LaPorta, the centerpiece of the CC Sabathia trade, who was blocked at 1B, LF, and RF by Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, and Corey Hart. In this case, Lawrie, a “second baseman” who Baseball Prospectus’s Kevin Goldstein (among others) expects to end up as a corner outfielder in the majors.

In this case, Lawrie is blocked at second by recent entrant into the six-WAR club Rickie Weeks. He’s also blocked in the corners by the same men who blocked LaPorta back in 2008, Braun and Hart. Braun’s contract only pays him just over $40 million through 2015, and he certainly isn’t going anywhere. Hart signed a three year contract worth $26.5 million, so ostensibly, he isn’t going anywhere soon either. Although Lawrie has star potential, particularly if he stays at second base, it’s not entirely clear that he will provide anything that the Brewers don’t already have.

With Lawrie coming off a very impressive .361 wOBA season as a 20 year old at AA Huntsville, it’s hard to imagine his value at a higher point in the near future. The Brewers had a large roster hole to fill, and due to the concerns about Lawrie’s position, Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin decided to capitalize on Lawrie’s high prospect stock. By most accounts, this deal was fair to both sides. The Brewers filled a need and the Jays dealt from a position of surplus. The Brewers win in the short term, and, if Lawrie develops in accordance to his top prospect status, the Jays should enjoy a solid long term return.