Friday, July 11, 2008

Cubs Countermove

On Monday, July 7th, the Milwaukee Brewers traded for pitcher C.C. Sabathia to try and help their chances of passing the Chicago Cubs in the NL Central. The very next day the Cubs countered with a pitching addition of their own, trading for the Oakland Athletics’ Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin. Four players were sent to Oakland: pitcher Sean Gallagher, outfielders Matt Murton and Eric Patterson, and catcher Josh Donaldson. All but Donaldson can help the A’s right now.

The Cubs get two pitchers who will contribute immediately in Harden and Gaudin. Harden has tremendous ability and can be one of the more dominating pitchers in the league – when he’s healthy. The problem is that he’s had a hard time doing that. He’s made 13 starts so far this year and it’s the first time he’s made double-digit starts since 2005. To date, 2004 is the only season that he’s been able to put in a full-season’s workload. But the idea of what a healthy Harden could mean for the Cubs was too much to pass up. Although, he is signed through 2009, so an injury wouldn’t be the end of the world because they’d still have next year for him to contribute. However, it’s obvious that this deal was made with 2008 in mind.

Don’t forget about Chad Gaudin, who isn’t just a throw-in. He’s a solid arm for their bullpen with the ability to start as well – he spent all of 2007 in the A’s rotation. That versatility should be valuable for the Cubs. You never know when they’ll need another starter, especially with Harden’s injury history.

The players headed back to the Athletics have a different flavor than the ones the Indians got in the Sabathia trade. None of them have the upside of Matt LaPorta. Sean Gallagher is a nice pitching prospect though. He’s a 22 year old righty with good size, at 6’-2” 225 lbs. He throws a good low 90’s fastball and an above average curveball. His change-up has been progressing nicely as well. He’s more than just a prospect though, having already thrown 58-2/3 innings this year over 10 starts and 2 relief appearances. He’s played pretty well with a 3-4 record and 4.45 ERA. He should have a nice future as a middle of the rotation starter.

Matt Murton has a good approach at the plate and hits lefties very well. When he first came into the league I thought he could be a 20-HR guy, but it looks like he’s settling into the 15-20 range, and that’s if he got regular playing time, which he doesn’t. That power range and the righty/lefty split peg him as a platoon player. I think he could surprise some people if he’s given a chance to play everyday, but even if he doesn’t he’s still useful.

Eric Patterson used to be a second baseman, but has played himself off of that position and into the outfield. He doesn’t have the arm for right field so he’s limited to center and left, but he isn’t ideal for either. He’s sort of a tweener with a below average arm for center and below average power for left. He has a solid skill set though, and even if he doesn’t start for any championship clubs, he has a good shot at being more successful than his brother Corey.

Murton and Patterson both have talent, but it’s most likely that neither would be starting on any playoff teams.

Josh Donaldson is the wildcard. He was drafted 48th overall in 2007 and played extremely well in his first taste of professional baseball. He hit .335/.460/.590 with a 39:38 BB:SO ratio, spending almost the entire season in low Single-A. He’s still a work in progress defensively (he didn’t start catching until 2006) but he’s athletic and has the potential for above average arm strength from behind the plate. The reason he’s a wildcard is because the wheels have come off in 2008. Thru 68 games at Single-A, he’s hitting .217/.276/.349 with 17 walks and 41 strikeouts.

In my opinion, this deal is harder to evaluate than the Sabathia trade and that is due to the erratic value of headliner Rich Harden. If he stays healthy, this trade will be a major boon to the Cubs playoff aspirations. If he gets hurt, Oakland GM Billy Beane will once again look like a genius for trading him while he still had value. The package of players Beane got is solid, but unspectacular for someone with Harden’s ability, and his health risks are the #1 reason for that.

One thing I’d like to point out as an Orioles fan is the timing of this deal for the Athletics. They’re currently 50-42, only 5 games out in the AL West. However, Beane looked at his roster and saw that they were playing over their heads and weren’t really in the position to make a playoff run. This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The Orioles aren’t even in contention (already 10.5 games back), and there are still fans saying that we shouldn’t look to trade major pieces off to aid the rebuilding efforts, because it’ll pull the rug out from under the team. I wouldn’t trade any of our starting pitching because we have no depth there right now, but there aren’t many other players that I would consider off limits – essentially just Nick Markakis and Adam Jones.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Brew Crew Gets a 2nd Ace

Today, the Brewers parted ways with their #1 prospect and 3 others for Indians' ace C.C. Sabathia and a chance at the playoffs. They gave up outfielder Matt LaPorta, pitchers Zach Jackson, Rob Bryson and the infamous PTBNL (player to be named later). In the words of Brewers' GM Doug Melvin, "We're going for it."

Sabathia joins Ben Sheets at the top of the rotation, giving the Brewers one of the best 1-2 punches in the league. The Cubs are currently leading the NL Central, but the Brewers have been gaining (now only 4 games back) and the Cubs have got to be feeling the heat even more now.

The Brewers have got to like their chances now. Their offense has really started to click, as they've led the NL in SLG% over the last month and ranked 4th in runs. That's not to say that they've been winning simply by out-slugging everyone, though. Over those same last 30 days, the pitching staff has the NL's 2nd best ERA. What does a team that is playing as well as anyone need? A 2nd ace starting pitcher of course.

I especially like the fact they went and made the deal now, as opposed to waiting until closer to the deadline. Sabathia is a starting pitcher, so his contributions are limited to once every 5 days, so the earlier they get him in their starting rotation the better chance he has of actually making a difference.

Many "experts" around the country have said that the package of prospects given up for Sabathia is less than he could have netted. LaPorta is a top 5 hitting prospect, but he's the only elite prospect heading the Indians' way. Most predicted Sabathia to require 2 top notch prospects. I don't really think that would've happened though. One of the biggest reasons why the Indians chose to deal him was because of his interest in testing free agency. I don't know if you could expect someone to give up two of their best prospects for someone that they don't have much of a hope of signing past the 2 month rental period. The recent firing of Seattle GM Bill Bavasi could possibly be in the backs of other GM's minds as well. There are many things that factored into the Mariners' collapse this year, but Bavasi's decision to trade away as much talent as he did for Erik Bedard was definitely one of them.

All in all, it seems like a pretty fair deal all around. The Brewers get a big boost to their playoff aspirations and the biggest prospect they gave up was blocked at the major league level. The Indians get an elite prospect in LaPorta, two arms for system depth in Jackson and Bryson, and a PTBNL - could possibly be 3B Taylor Green. Here's a quick run down of the prospects included:

Matt LaPorta could probably step in and help Cleveland in leftfield or firstbase, where he played in college, right now. He has big time power, and it's not raw-future-projection power. It's here and now. He's now hit 32 HR in his first 114 professional games. He's a smart player, with a good approach at the plate, and a tremendous work ethic. He's the type of hitter you dream about penciling into your 3-4 spot for years to come.

Zach Jackson is a lefty with stuff that can play at the major league level, but hasn't been able to find success in the majors yet. A change of scenery could help him, but it didn't really help him last time, when he was sent to Milwaukee from Toronto in the Lyle Overbay trade.

Rob Bryson is a 20 year old reliever in Single-A with a good power fastball/slider combination. He's racking up strikeouts and has a chance to become a starter, (he made 4 starts last year and 5 so far this year) but his future likely lies in the bullpen.

The PTBNL will be one of two players. They have until the end of the minor league season to decide which one it will be. There is a rumor that it could be Taylor Green, who hit .327/.406/.516 at Single-A last year and is hitting .295/.380/.444 at Single-A Advanced this year. He also has a solid 93:107 BB:K ratio over the last year and a half. I can't imagine that 4th player getting any better than Green.