It’s often said that it is impossible to judge a baseball trade until well after the fact.
It takes time to see if Major League players make a difference for their new teams, and it takes even longer to see if prospects pan out. It’s now been three years since Doug Melvin made one of the boldest acquisitions in Milwaukee Brewers history. On July 7th, 2008, he obtained CC Sabathia from the Cleveland Indians in exchange for a group of Brewers prospects.
At the time, the Brewers were in a strong playoff position, co-owning the second best record in the National League with St. Louis, both behind division leading Chicago. We all know the rest of the story. CC Sabathia went on an indescribably brilliant run of 17 regular season starts for the Brewers, buoying an already solid team and leading them into the playoffs after a 25 year layoff.
The Brewers would only go on to win one playoff game against Philadelphia, the eventual World Series Champions. Sabathia left for the Yankees after the season, though the Brewers put up a spirited fight trying to keep the big lefty in Milwaukee.
While Sabathia only played with the Brewers for a few months, the trade was an undeniable short-term success for the Brewers. None of the players the team ended up sending to the Indians could have played anything near the role that Sabathia did for the Brewers.
But in the end, the trade can’t just be judged on Sabathia’s time in Milwaukee. We have to look at the net effects of the trade on both organizations to see who made out better over the long run, and whether or not that’s still an undecided question.
In the trade with the Indians, the Brewers gave up top prospect Matt LaPorta and mid-level prospects Rob Bryson and Zach Jackson, as well as a player to be named. Michael Brantley, a pretty well regarded prospect, was included in the the deal as the player to be named later in early October of 2008. LaPorta, Brantley and Bryson are still in the Indians organization. Jackson was traded to Toronto before the 2010 season.
The Brewers got more than just Sabathia. When he left for the Yankees, the Brewers received the Yankees’ second round draft as compensation, as well as a supplemental first round draft pick awarded by MLB for the loss. Those two picks ended up being the 73rd and 39th overall, respectively.
Knowing all of that information, it’s time to break down the trade for both sides. In judging MLB contributions, I’ll compare players using the FanGraphs value stats WAR (which is non-contextual) and WPA (which is contextual) for the time the player spent with the organization.
(I chose FanGraphs WAR and WPA because I can find them easily – this is not a judgment on any other value statistics from other sites. For more information on these stats, please visit FanGraphs.)
In judging minor league players, we’ll use the more limited statistical information that we have, as well as some scouting.
For the Brewers
SP CC Sabathia (traded from the Indians): 4.6 WAR, 3.17 WPA during 2008.
Not much more needs to be said about Sabathia’s 2008 run with the Brewers. A WAR of 5 is considered to be about All-Star level. Sabathia nearly reached that total in less than half a season with Milwaukee. Amazing. His WPA suggests his pitching added three wins to the club.
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.
For the Indians
1B Matt LaPorta (traded from the Brewers): -0.9 WAR, -1.04 WPA from 2009-present.
LaPorta was drafted 7th overall by the Brewers in 2007, and was regarded as one of the best college hitters in that draft. His college success and career 953 OPS in the minor leagues haven’t transferred to the big league level yet, and he’ll be 27 in January. The Indians were looking for more than a 699 MLB OPS from LaPorta, especially because he’s a below-average fielder at first base. He still has a chance to succeed in the bigs, but his window is starting to close.
OF Michael Brantley (traded from Brewers as PTBNL): 0.7 WAR, 0.58 WPA from 2009-present.
There is an infamous and ongoing debate in the Brewers online community about this aspect of the trade. The Indians had a choice between trading for Brantley or Taylor Green. They were remarkably similar prospects at the time. The Indians ended up going with Brantley, who made it to the big leagues in 2009. Green injured his wrist that year and hasn’t recovered until now. In that respect, it looks like Cleveland picked the right guy. (Full disclosure: I was and am feverishly pro-Green. I was fine with the Indians taking Brantley between the two.) Brantley has a great eye at the plate and is pretty fast. However, he lacks the arm and instincts to play center field and is almost completely devoid of power, making him a tweener in left field. He hasn’t added a lot of value to the Cleveland offense so far, but he could be an effective lead-off man as long as the Indians don’t need any power from the left field position.
RHP Rob Bryson (traded from the Brewers): 2.56 ERA, 33 BB, 121 K in 87.2 IP in the minors with the Indians organization 2008-present.
Bryson is a relief prospect that has been injury-plagued since his trade to the Indians, including a torn labrum and rotator cuff that made him miss most of 2009. When he’s healthy, he has a big swing-and-miss fastball that reaches 95 MPH, though his offspeed pitches are unrefined. Bryson is now pitching in AA and if he remains healthy, could have an impact on the Cleveland bullpen.
LHP Zach Jackson (traded from the Brewers): 0.5 WAR, -1.10 WPA during 2008-2009. Traded to Toronto in January 2010 for a player to be named later that, to the best of my knowledge, was never named.
Jackson pitched 63.1 mostly mediocre innings for the Indians between 2008 and 2009 and was then more or less given to Toronto. Milwaukee originally acquired Jackson from Toronto as part of the Lyle Overbay/Dave Bush deal. He’s now pitching for the AAA affiliate of the Rangers organization.
The Brewers have received all of their MLB value in this deal thus far from Sabathia: 4.6 WAR, 3.17 WPA. Davis and Walla may or may not contribute to the MLB squad down the road.
The Indians have received the following MLB value from LaPorta, Brantley and Jackson: 0.3 WAR, -1.56 WPA. Bryson, assuming he stays healthy, is likely to be in the big leagues eventually. LaPorta and Brantley will continue to play in MLB for the foreseeable future. Jackson may or may not make it back to the big leagues, but it probably won’t be for Cleveland if he does.
The Indians have received almost no aggregate value from the trade to this point. Brantley seems to be the biggest risk for the deal turning south for the Brewers in the end, but he is no sure thing. The Brewers got the one sure thing in the trade and it’s fair to say that the Brewers have received the better end of the deal so far.