Trade Retrospective: Sabathia to Brewers

In 2008, the Milwaukee Brewers were one of the feel-good stories of the baseball season. They ended a 26-year postseason drought and brought October baseball back to the land of beer and cheese.

Milwaukee also made headlines when they orchestrated the blockbuster trade of the summer. To augment a starting rotation that lost young right-hander Yovani Gallardo earlier in the year to a torn ACL which he sustained in a freak injury against the Chicago Cubs, the Brewers sent first baseman Matt LaPorta, center fielder Michael Brantley, left-hander Zach Jackson, and right-handed reliever Rob Bryson to Cleveland in order to acquire their ace, CC Sabathia.

At the time, the four-prospect package was largely considered a steep price to pay for a half-year rental. Over three years later, though, how does that trade look?

For the Brewers, CC Sabathia was more than the organization and fan base could have ever hoped for. He did not don a Brewers uniform until July, yet he threw 130.2 innings with a sparkling 1.65 ERA. That included a 11-2 record, seven complete games, and three starts on only three days rest — in which he allowed two earned runs in 21.2 innings (0.83 ERA).

Sabathia also had a near no-hitter on August 31 against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The southpaw tossed a 117-pitch shutout, but he surrendered a single hit in the bottom of the fifth inning. It was a swinging bunt off the bat of third baseman Andy LaRoche, and Sabathia fumbled what appeared to be a rather routine play just in front of the pitcher’s mound (video here). Many thought it was an error — I thought it was an error — but the official scorer at PNC ruled it a clean base hit.

Ultimately, the trade allowed the Brewers to upgrade from Seth McClung to CC Sabathia in the starting rotation. McClung held his own as an emergency starter, posting a 4.24 ERA in the rotation that year, but the overall upgrade for the organization was likely three or four wins. Sabathia was worth +4.6 WAR during his stint with the Brewers. It was one of the more impressive stretches on the mound in recent years. In fact, of pitchers who threw at least 100 innings during the 2008 season, only 18 pitchers compiled more than +4.6 WAR over the entire season.

Pitcher WAR Pitcher WAR
Tim Lincecum 7.5 Ryan Dempster 5.2
Roy Halladay 7.5 Jon Lester 5.1
Cliff Lee 7.2 Josh Beckett 5.1
Dan Haren 6.5 Gil Meche 5.0
Brandon Webb 6.0 Derek Lowe 5.0
Ervin Santana 5.8 Zack Greinke 4.9
A.J. Burnett 5.5 Javier Vazquez 4.9
Mike Mussina 5.3 Johan Santana 4.8
John Danks 5.2 Aaron Cook 4.7

Other than the eighteen names listed above, CC Sabathia outperformed every pitcher in baseball in just three months.

Perhaps the trade is best defined for the Brewers by Sabathia’s performance on the last day of the 2008 regular season: September 28. On his third-consecutive start on just three day’s rest, he threw a complete game four-hitter against the Chicago Cubs. He struck out seven and only gave up a single unearned run. The complete game victory clinched the organization’s first postseason appearance since 1982.

Cleveland, on the other hand, did not make the trade with a postseason berth in mind. They agreed to the trade in hopes of bolstering their farm system and building for the future.

The centerpiece of the deal was former first-round draft pick Matt LaPorta. The young man was lighting up Double-A at the time of the trade, hitting .288/.402/.576 with 20 home runs. Scouts predicted he would become yet another productive power hitter drafted by Jack Zduriencik, but thus far, those predictions have been light years off the mark. LaPorta has played 269 games with the Indians and has been worth -1.4 WAR with a career .238/.304/.397 triple-slash line.

The largest issue for LaPorta has been his inability to lay off pitches outside the strike zone. He posted a 37.1% O-Swing% last year and has a 13.8% SwStr%. The power still shows at times, but big league pitchers have discovered his weaknesses against offspeed pitches and only threw him 49.2% fastballs in 2011. For comparison, the league average was 57.8% fastballs on the season.

Perhaps LaPorta can adjust to big league pitching and provide value to the Indians. He remains under team control for the next four seasons and will not be arbitration eligible until next winter. His current production, however, has not come close to meeting expectations.

The value of the trade, thus far, has been center fielder Michael Brantley. The 24-year-old was the player to be named later in the deal and was worth +1.4 WAR last year, splitting time between left and center field. He possesses a solid approach at the plate — 6.9% walk rate and 15.3% strikeout rate — and has shown a bit more pop in the big leagues than he ever did in the minors.

Still, he struggles defensively in center field and is a much better fit with the glove at a corner outfield spot. The fringe double-digit home run potential then becomes more of an issue. Unless the glove improves in center, Brantley is much more of a fourth outfielder than anything else. And when trading someone like CC Sabathia, an organization obviously wants a better returning package of players than one that nets a fourth outfielder — albeit a very nice one — as the cream of the crop.

Cleveland also acquired left-hander Zach Jackson and right-hander Rob Bryson in the deal. Jackson pitched a total of 63.1 innings for the Indians in 2008 and 2009, compiling a career 6.11 ERA, before being shipped to Toronto prior to the 2010 season. Bryson is a bit more promising. The 24-year-old had a combined 2.29 ERA in the Indians’ system last year, striking out eleven batters per nine innings. He has a fastball that can touch 95-96 MPH and projects to reach the big league bullpen in the near future, so we should not simply ignore Bryson as a piece of value in this trade. At the same time, the young man projects to be a middle reliever at the big league level, so his ultimate value is limited.

Over three full seasons removed from this blockbuster trade, the Brewers acquired +4.6 wins and the Indians acquired a total (thus far) of -0.6 wins. The Indians still have nine years of control between LaPorta and Brantley, but neither appear destined for full-time roles at the big league level, while Bryson should be nothing more than a middle reliever.

On those numbers alone, Milwaukee looks to have come out ahead in the trade. The Sabathia trade meant more than four or five wins to the Brewers’ franchise, though. It marked an end to a 26-year postseason drought. Most of the time, when baseball fans employ the “flags fly forever” argument, they are speaking of World Series championships or even division pennants. In this case, a mere Wild Card berth sent the entire state of Wisconsin into a baseball frenzy. It marked a return to relevance in Major League Baseball.

And in some ways, for the Brewers organization, that was a win in itself.

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J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).

29 Responses to “Trade Retrospective: Sabathia to Brewers”

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  1. Mike N says:

    Did the Brewers get draft picks as well for Sabathia leaving? Worth considering as part of the value for the Brewers.

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    • eckmuhl says:

      The Brewers did offer CC arbitration, which was declined, giving them two compensation draft picks. Unfortunately, to this point it doesn’t look like either prospect selected is going to pan out:

      “OF Kentrail Davis (39th pick in 2009 draft, received as compensation): .280/.373/.410 in 841 minor league plate appearances 2010-present.

      When the Brewers drafted Davis, they thought they were getting a college center fielder who would move quickly through the system. Instead, Davis signed late and didn’t play in 2009. He had hamstring problems for the better part of 2010, which severely hampered his development. It’s also clear that he’ll be limited to the corner outfield. Though it’s far too early to label Davis a bust, the Brewers were expecting more. He has a 694 OPS in high-A this year.

      OF Max Walla (73rd pick in 2009 draft, received as compensation): .236/.314/.333 in 510 minor league plate appearances 2009-present.

      Walla was drafted out of high school in part due to an impressive predraft workout at Miller Park. We haven’t seen that power in games yet. He had a brutal 2009, striking out in nearly 40% of his plate appearances and hitting .201. He’s a better hitter than that, and it playing decently in Helena as a 20 year old. A corner outfielder only, he has a good enough arm for right field.”


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      • Sour Bob says:

        Does anyone else hear Kentrail Davis’ name and briefly mistake it for “Chemtrail” Davis, a la the conspiracy theory?

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    • Justin says:

      The Brewers drafted Kentrail Davis in the supplemental round. What is mildly interesting is that the pick the Yankees gave up for signing Teixiera, who was above Sabathia on the Type A scale, ended up being the pick the Angels used to pick Mike Trout. All sorts of what-ifs abound from that information, although its relevance is debatable.

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  2. billybob says:

    Useful, I suppose, to put forward the standard caveat: that no one has a crystal ball, and LaPorta did look good at the time (as, it should be said, did Andy LaRoche). Cleveland didn’t make a dumb trade, they just got pretty unlucky, as the main chips didn’t turn out. Sometimes that happens.

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    • Vegemitch says:

      I suppose that’s why the title is “Trade Retrospective…” and also why the author did not posit that Cleveland made a dumb trade.

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  3. cable fixer says:

    nice analysis. i agree, the compensation pick (kentrail davis?) should probably be figured in as well, although Davis contributing to the big league club is far from assured at this point.

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  4. eric says:

    matt laporta makes me angry

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  5. Aaron (UK) says:

    Good analysis – but what about the actual ($) value of the two postseason home games? And the WAR Sabathia contributed (or, rather, didn’t) in his Game 2 start?

    I’ve never understood quite why baseball stats have such a thing about the postseason; essentially preferring to ignore it rather than count it simply because it’s more difficult to incorporate. Surely we can do better than that?

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    • cable fixer says:

      ooh that’s interesting. the brewers correctly judged their place on the win curve and, beyond the 4.6 WAR, CC added value to the club through the postseason visit.

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  6. HotPinS says:

    Great article, as usual. I’d just like to mention that CC looks way better in a Brewers uniform than in a Yankees’. Beer and cheese just seem to fit a fat guy better than unflattering pin stripes.

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  7. Christo P. Ney says:

    As good as C.C.’s run was with the Brewers, Randy Johnson’s performance with the Astros after being traded from the Mariners in ’98 slightly beats it in WAR/start to go with a patently ridiculous 1.28 ERA (2.04 FIP), 12.4 K/9 and a stupid 92% LOB percentage.

    A trade deadline deal (July 31), the Astros were up 3 1/2 games when they got Johnson and proceeded to run away with the division, finishing 13 games up. The Padres beat them in the divisional series that year, 3-1, but Johnson did his part. He gave up three earned in 14 innings of work while the Houston offense plated exactly zero runs while Johnson was in the game.

    The trade chips are the difference though when comparing the two trades. Sweaty Freddy Garcia gave the Mariners 15.5 WAR in five years (33.7 career and still sweating). Carlos Guillén offered the Mariners 7.3 WAR of mostly mediocre play before giving the Tigers 19.5 WAR from 2004-2008. Mr. Bavasi, you were a genius!

    The PTBNL in that trade was John Halama. John Halama was John Halama and what a John Halama he was.

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    • Josh says:

      I’d make that move again in a heartbeat if I was the ‘Stros because, in my opinion, it worked out pretty well for both sides (getting whta they wanted), just couldn’t get over that hump that was the domination by Kevin Brown and the Padres. It was the right move by the Astros and turned out really well for the Mariners.

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  8. Questioner says:

    When comparing players in these deals, should we really include negative WAR?

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  9. Why do you call me Mr. Tibbs? says:

    I still remember CC’s no hitter that was ruled a one hitter because the Pirates official scorer couldn’t bear to also be no hit as well as being the worst franchise for the past 20+ years. It was s***!

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  10. Ron Paul says:

    I’m not sure how this article wouldn’t even mention the Brewers received two early draft picks for Sabathia. That is always a major consideration when trading away prospects for an established MLB player is the ability to replace the prospects dealt away with a pick or two if the acquired player leaves.

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  11. You are a Moron plain and simple, whoever let you express your knowledge should be fired too. 9 years left of the tribe holding on to laporta and Brantley first off that’s lots of time for young players to find it. Yea laporta has been so so, but will get a chance to find himself in Columbus to start the year. Secondly how can you say Brantley won’t find a full time role in the bigs, he had a pretty good year for the tribe this past season mainly leading off and he played a great centerfield. He will again be starting in left or center depending on size mores health and will hit leadoff. But your right the brewers accomplished nothing and gave up 4 players for it two of whom have contributed to the Indians already and Brantley is a. Future all star/gold glover. Don’t comment if you don’t have a clue

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    • Nick says:

      are you aware that your indians finished 15 games out of 1st place last year and now that the tigers have prince they will surely finish worse… so regardless nobody really cares because they won’t be anywhere near a place to contend anyway

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      • 15 games out when we were supposed to finish barley ahead of the royals get a clue man, wow the tigers have prince fielder and Cabrera who will be ate up at third, the tribe made some significant minor moves. Verlander may win 30 games and the the big dogs maybe will combine for 80 homers but it is a team game this division will be closer than u think.

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      • If u want to comment on my comment make sure it’s to what I’m talking about bud, the brewers gave away for prospects for virtually nothing wow they made the playoffs but didn’t win shit.

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      • Are u aware that I do this for a living and you are a no talent ass clown

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  12. Adam says:

    To Zach above,

    I am an Indians fan and I can tell you I agree with this article’s analysis of Michael Brantley. In what was a “pretty good” year for Brantley, he had a .318 OBP, a .118 ISO and a .243 wOBA against lefties. He’ll be 25 this year, so there is still room for improvement. However, he has done nothing in the big leagues to suggest that he’s ever going to hit well enough to be an everyday corner outfielder. He’s NOT a good centerfielder- terrible jumps, awkward routes- and his bat wont play in a corner. That right there is the definition of a 4th outfielder, though I think Brantley can be a very good one.

    I’m all for letting Brantley prove himself and hopefully as he ages he will grow into some more gap power which should also in turn help out his walk rates and maybe we could see some strong OBP’s like we saw from him in the minors. Until then, I don’t think he belongs in the box if there’s a lefty on the hill.

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    • You consider yourself a tribe fan then listen up for a second. He’s 25 and this past season he was thust into the leadoff spot and hit .266 in114 games, he was expected to be a bottom of the order guy, and it was hi first season getting any real significant time, that’s a pretty good offensive season seeing as how he had virtually no power behind him and asdrubal was his only consistent protection, He was also supposed to play left field, and was forced to center due to grady being hurt. 3 errors and 5 assists in 114 games, I guess that’s subpar (sarcasm). Hopefully Sizemore can be the leadoff hitter and play center like he used too, so mike can hit two hole and play left as an above average defensive outfielder who about to come into the prime of his career. Like I said a future all star.

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  13. To the two that responded to my comment, you clearly didn’t listen to everything I said, The brewers gave up 4 prospects for a Trip to the playoffs that earned them nothing, I think Righ about now they are probably wishing they had Brantley in the outfield, and laporta filling in at first base it’s going be a rough season for e brew crew. For me I think the Indians get into the postseason this year the minor moves the tribe have made make the overall team better, Derek Lowe Jon garland, Kevin slowey, Casey kotchman, Andy laroche, Christian Guzman, fred Lewis, Jorge lopez, with a healthy Sizemore hafner, and Carlos Santana. That team contends with verlander prince and miguel who I gonna have a rough season at the hot corner. That fat boy may have 50 errors. Smart move puttin him over there, it’s beyond me why he’s not the dh. Inge should be playing third, and let’s also remember prince isn’t the best first basemen defensively either. Are you awRe hahahahahahahah. Smh

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  14. I saw a movie once where the Indians made the playoffs with a bunch of lesser players.

    It could happen.

    Go wIndians.

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  15. Todd says:

    How does that trade look now? I think Brantley is coming into his own quite well.

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