Tribe wise, but Brewers get best of deal
The Milwaukee Brewers aren’t supposed to do this. They play in Wisconsin, and the biggest catch in the trade-deadline sea does not go to a place famous for cheese.
He goes to Boston or Los Angeles or New York. Anywhere but Milwaukee, a – OK, hold your nose – small market. Pronounced with the disgust of a first-grader when asked whether he likes girls.
Actually, he used to go to those big cities. No longer are C.C. Sabathia and other golden tickets of his ilk limited in their dwellings. The beauty of baseball is its ability to reinvent itself amid a structured set of rules, and the latest example will take place Monday, when the Milwaukee Brewers sign and seal their deal with the Cleveland Indians that will net them last year’s American League Cy Young winner and, they hope, the antidote to their pox of 25 straight years without postseason baseball.
Milwaukee, the definition of a small-market team – 34th-ranked TV market, lowest in Major League Baseball – competed for, and won, Sabathia with a special combination that all low-revenue teams would be well-served to emulate: prospects, fortitude and foresight.
The first is obvious. To trade for talent, the Brewers needed it, and slugger Matt LaPorta, an outfielder and first baseman, provided the centerpiece of the deal. The Indians also will receive left-hander Zach Jackson, young right-hander Rob Bryson and, likely as a player to be named later, third baseman Taylor Green, the organization’s minor league player of the year last season.
It’s an OK haul for Cleveland, almost certainly not the booty Cleveland general manager Mark Shapiro extracted in his last blockbuster, when he received Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee and Brandon Phillips from the Montreal Expos for Bartolo Colon. Still, that Shapiro this early recognized the value of Sabathia, a free agent to be, and snagged at least one top prospect – he tried, to no avail, to get third baseman Mat Gamel or shortstop Alcides Escobar from Milwaukee – is a sign that the market simply wasn’t booming.
Because Boston and New York never engaged deep into the bidding and Milwaukee’s greatest adversary was prospect-thin Philadelphia, the Brewers found themselves in a strong position. Which led to quality No. 2: fortitude.
To envision this Brewers team as a legitimate threat would have seemed folly May 19, when they were 20-24, mired in the basement of the National League Central division, their season crumbling after losing starter Yovani Gallardo for the season to a knee injury. Executives started pestering Brewers general manager Doug Melvin about when he would trade ace Ben Sheets. Melvin chose not to budge.
Since then, the Brewers have gone 29-15, climbed into a tie for the wild-card lead and sit 3½ games behind Central-leading Chicago. They were close enough where Melvin could force Cleveland’s hand. The Brewers wanted Sabathia by Tuesday so they could get his two starts before the All-Star break.
The trade snuck up on one executive not involved in the talks, who said, “I thought they’d at least wait until the second week of the month.” And yet he was not surprised, not that Milwaukee was the team pulling the fast one, because they’ve got in spades characteristic No. 3: foresight.
Any way the trade gets broken down, Milwaukee wins. Already, with the likely loss of Sheets to free agency, they’ll reap two compensatory draft choices. With Sabathia making up for his early season foibles – he has a 2.16 ERA over 104 1/3 innings since April 22 – he probably worked himself back into the nine-figure contract range, which makes him too rich for Milwaukee’s blood and means two more draft choices.
All of which works fine, because Milwaukee employs Jack Zduriencik, polysyllabic in surname, monosyllabic in description: great. He’s the Brewers’ scouting director and the reason they keep reloading a minor-league system that has produced Sheets, Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, J.J. Hardy, Rickie Weeks, Manny Parra and Gallardo.
Milwaukee’s motto: Always bet on Jack.
Best case, the Sabathia deal does work and Milwaukee, at very least, reaches the postseason for the first time since reaching the World Series in 1982. It’s been a tough road. Brewers grew synonymous with doormats, and last season, when they melted down after a boiling start, they celebrated the hollow victory of having cracked .500 for the first time since the strike.
Landing Sabathia is, as Brewers executives will admit, as much a stroke of luck as anything. To think the Indians could so quickly go from within one game of the World Series to one selling its greatest asset is unfathomable until factoring in the injuries to Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez, and the general underachievement otherwise. Cleveland is waving the white flag at the right time, 14 games back and a firm grip on last place in an AL Central that isn’t exactly a pit of hot rocks. What was once a laughable notion, trading Sabathia coming off such a great season, turned stone-faced serious Sunday.
And it taught another lesson, one that all baseball executives – even the richest among them – heed. Money, nice as it is, no longer wins championships. Brains do.
C.C. Sabathia isn’t going to the big city. He’s going to the right one.