The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Monday, July 07, 2008

 

Very Big Man, Very Big Deal

I'm just back from a whirlwind long weekend in Milwaukee, where I celebrated one brother-in-law's 40th birthday and another brother-in-law's recent wedding, saw two friends' newborn son as well as my favorite medical miracle. As if that wasn't enough, I also got to partake in a couple of the region's great traditions -- tailgating before a Brewers game (which was won very satisfactorily in the bottom of the ninth on a walk-off hit by Prince Fielder) and seeing Cheap Trick at Summerfest -- in the same evening, no less. That's a pretty great slate right there.

With the Yankees-Red Sox drama well off my radar, I soaked up the Brewer buzz, particularly the CC Sabathia-to-Milwaukee rumors which lingered in the air all weekend. On July 4, I had a few moments to pick the brain of Joe Zidanic, the Brewers exec who made my Sausage Race adventure possible a few years back. He's on the money side, not the player personnel side (officially Vice President-Controller), but he knew his way around most of the prospects we discussed, even if he understandably played his cards close to the vest. After talking to him, I'm not surprised that the Brew Crew managed to pull off the big deal for the big man, sending four prospects to Cleveland for Sabathia. The team's farm system may be a bit down after graduating so many young players to the big club's roster, but it remains deep.

More importantly, the Brewers' status as contenders has been restored. A little over six weeks ago, it looks as though their playoff hopes might already be dashed. They stumbled to a 23-27 start while their bullpen smoldered and their ace-in-the-making Yovani Gallardo was lost to an ACL tear. Even last week some Brewers fans at the Baseball Prospectus "Pizza Feed" were giving me stick for having touted them this spring. However, the team is on a 26-12 run -- best in the majors in that span -- over which they've outscored opponents by just over a run per game, and they now claim the second-best winning percentage in the league. "We're going for it," said GM Doug Melvin of the deal for the 2007 Al Cy Young winner, noting that the pressure for the Brewers to get back to the postseason for the first time since 1982 is countered by an outpouring of support at the box office. Despite playing in the league's smallest media market, they're a respectable 12th in the majors in attendance, and they have a shot at bettering last year's franchise record of 2,869,144. For that, the Brewers, who for years under the inept Selig regime lined their pockets with revenue sharing money, feel as though they owe their supporters a run. "This is a huge boost to the fans, who have had a long drought here," said Melvin. "Maybe they never thought that this kind of thing could happen."

Gambling the future on this year's playoff berth may seem like a reckless strategy, particularly as Sabathia is almost certain to test free agency at the end of the year with an asking price more suited to the budget of the Yankees than the Brewers. But it's worth nothing that his departure would net the Brewers two first-round draft picks, a significant asset in the hands of scouting director Jack Zduriencik, Baseball America's 2007 Executive of the Year. Add the two picks the Brewers might get if Ben Sheets walks as well, and they could have five picks in the first 35 to 40 of next year's draft. That ain't hay. Furthermore, research by my Baseball Prospectus colleague Nate Silver for Baseball Between the Numbers shows that a single trip to the playoffs can have a decade-long bounce in media rights fees. That bounce is now about a decade and a half overdue.

Sabathia's overall numbers aren't superficially impressive (6-8, 3.83 ERA), but he was getting just 4.38 runs per game of offensive support from the hapless Indians; in exactly half of his starts, the team had scored two runs or less. He leads the AL in strikeouts (123 in 122.1 innings), and after compiling a grisly 13.50 ERA over his first four starts, has put up a 2.09 ERA over his last 14 starts, with a stellar 109/20 K/BB ratio in 104.1 innings. The dude can pitch, and for all of the concern about his oversized frame, his history of stellar strikeout-to-walk ratios is evidence that his mechanics are pretty sound; you don't put up 5-to-1 ratios without the ability to repeat your motion time after time after time. That's how David Wells did it, and Sabathia does it with considerably more heat via a mid-90s fastball and a plus slider. He's big but athletic, and it's not a coincidence that he's shown some prowess with the stick (.300/.317/.475 with two homers in 40 at-bats) during his limited opportunities in interleague play.

The Brewers rotation needs a horse like Sabathia. Though they're actually third in the league in innings per start (5.93), most of that is a product of Sheets and his three complete games; take him out of the equation and they'd be 11th in the league. Two starters, Jeff Suppan and David Bush, are carrying ERAs above 4.70; Suppan just went on the DL with an elbow problem, and his spot would have fallen to bullpen exile Carlos Villanueva if this deal hadn't been made. The other two starters, rookie Manny Parra and reclamation project Seth McClung, have both shown promise but don't exactly have track records of reliability. Parra is notoriously injury-prone, while McClung is still the owner of a career 5.77 ERA owing to years of futility in Tampa Bay. Adding Sabathia gives the front of the rotation a 1-2 punch that can match up with just about any in the game.

What does surprise me abou this deal is that the centerpiece was Matt LaPorta, the Brewers' 2007 first-round pick. Drafted as a first baseman but converted to right field, the 23-year-old LaPorta has clubbed 32 homers in his first 112 pro games and is hitting .291/.404/.584 with 20 jacks this year at Double-A Huntsville. With power like that, he appeared to be the heir apparent to Fielder, who is arbitration-eligible next year but thought to be on the outs with the club after they unilaterally renewed his contract this spring. Perhaps this move is a portent of a long-term deal with Fielder similar to the one Ryan Braun signed earlier this season.

In any event, the trade doesn't guarantee the Brewers anything. It's sure to be countered by the Cubs, who lead the Brewers by 3.5 games in the NL Central and are said to have their sights on Oakland's Rich Harden. The Cardinals, also 3.5 out and mere percentage points behind the Brewers, may have a trade up their sleeves as well. But it's the Brewers who have struck first, at a time when they're already hot, and if you're somebody who's got a stake in their season, as I and all of my Milwaukee peeps do, that's something to be excited about.

Update: Over at SI.com, my boy Cliff Corcoran thinks the Brew Crew "have all but guaranteed themselves their first playoff berth since 1982." He's also got some input from BP's Kevin Goldstein regarding the prospects headed to Cleveland.

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