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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.