Milwaukee officially added the larger-than-life left-hander to its starting rotation on Thursday, sending three prospects—slugging minor league outfielder Matt LaPorta highlights the group—to the Cleveland Indians in exchange for Sabathia. Thus, it is evident that the Brewers are making a run at this thing right now.
In the weaker league, anything is possible, and Milwaukee strongly increased its chances of reaching the postseason by adding a front-line starter to join Ben Sheets at the top of its pitching staff. Headed into Sabathia's debut, the Brewers are 49-40, four games back in the NL Central. Their +10 run differential, however, indicates that they have been lucky at times so far this year, causing me to label the club as a pretender in a recent second-half prediction article.
While many are skeptical of the impact that a single pitcher can have on a team, there is no question that the addition of Sabathia, entering the inferior league, dramatically improves the Brewers' postseason chances.
The Chicago Cubs—the club responded to the Sabathia trade by acquiring Rich Harden, the oft-injured Oakland Athletics starter—are still the favorite in the division. With the best record and run differential (+112) in the league, the Cubs' playoff chances remain strong.
The St. Louis Cardinals are in the mix as well. St. Louis is 50-40, despite a +10 run differential and the absence of ace Chris Carpenter and a recent injury to slugger Albert Pujols, who is enjoying another MVP-caliber season. Dave Duncan, it seems, has done it again, turning pitchers such as Kyle Loshe and Todd Wellemeyer into effective options in the Cardinals' starting rotation. Ryan Ludwick has been a nice surprise as well, earning an invitation to the All-Star game next week after a monster first two months. Ludwick has posted a .944 OPS, batting .290/.367/.577 with 17 home runs and 58 RBIs entering Tuesday night. He has struggled recently, however, and his high batting average on balls in play points toward regression for him in the second half.
While St. Louis still has a strong chance—as every team in the West currently boasts a sub-.500 record—to take home the Wild Card, its odds of reaching the playoffs for the first time since the Cards surprised us all to win the 2006 World Series undoubtedly took a hit with the Brewers' acquisition of Sabathia.
Also boding well for Milwaukee and St. Louis, the Florida Marlins and New York Mets appear to be pretenders. This means that is more than likely that the Wild Card ticket will be punched from the Midwest.
Sheets has been a true ace for the Brewers to this point, going 10-2 with a 2.77 ERA, 97-to-26 K/W ratio, 1.11 WHIP and an opponents' line of .235/.275/.388. However, the risk of injury has always been an issue with Sheets, who, like Sabathia, will bolt for free agency once the season ends.
However, with Manny Parra, Jeff Suppan—recently sent to the disabled list—Dave Bush and Seth McClung—the former Tampa Bay Rays starter who has struggled in a relief role—the Brewers have some decent arms at the back of the pitching staff as well. Parra has limited hitters to a .743 OPS, going 7-2 in 18 starts. While his 3.65 ERA is a bit misleading, he is a solid piece to the Brewers' rotation, and will need to pitch effectively down the stretch. McClung is unlikely to remain this effective, making it likely that he could be moved back into the bullpen when Suppan returns.
Therefore, the Brewers' staff will now ride the back of Sabathia, who immediately becomes one of the strongest starting pitchers on the Senior Circuit—perhaps outside of Johan Santana. If he can remain healthy enough to make around 16 starts, he could really make a save the Brewers from giving up a lot of runs, as he will now have the luxury of facing the pitcher every nine hitters.
Along with Fausto Carmona, Sabathia pushed Cleveland into the postseason in 2007, going 19-7 with a 3.21 ERA and 65.2 VORP to edge out Josh Beckett and his teammate for the American League Cy Young Award.
After a poor April, Sabathia has returned to his dominant self recently, lowering his ERA to 3.83. His 6-8 record is misleading, too, as he has posted a stellar 123-to-34 K/W ratio in 122.1 innings for the Indians, who have now thrown in the towel for this season.
Sabathia is only one pitcher, though, and it is easy for some skeptics to point towards Santana, who has been the Mets' strongest pitcher but has not dominated the National League in the fashion in which many predicted. Sabathia and Sheets will not be with the Brewers next year, so the summer is crucial for Milwaukee, which has not reached the postseason since the Paul Molitor and Robin Yount era. While the playoffs are certainly not a sure thing, Milwaukee has officially improved upon its pretender status with the addition of Sabathia, who will now get to swing the bat as well. Considering he nearly hit a ball out of Dodger Stadium a few weeks ago, perhaps he will give Micah Owings a run for his money as the best slugging pitcher in the game.
The Brewers also have a strong core of offensive stars—led by Prince Fielder and last year's Rookie of the Year, Ryan Braun—and will not struggle to score runs. Not to mention, Milwaukee is catching the ball better than ever before, as they has improved defensively as a team as well. Moving Braun, a butcher at third base, to the outfield has helped alot, especially in the infield. Milwaukee, in fact, now ranks 11th out of 30 teams in defensive efficiency—the rate at which balls put into play are converted into outs.
The centerpiece for Cleveland is Laporta, the seventh overall pick of the 2007 draft out of the University of Florida. Some scouts compare him to a right-hander version of Travis Hafner—one of the reason's for the Indians' inability to score runs—in his prime. At the time of the deal, he was among Double-A leaders with a .978 OPS, batting .288/.402/.576 with 20 home runs and 66 RBIs in the Southern League. Moving to Cleveland, he will get to switch back to the infield, and he has the skills to turn into a plus defensive first baseman. He has strong enough arm strength—he was once clocked at 88 MPH in the Cape Cod League All-Star game a few summers ago—to remain in the outfield, but will hit enough to remain at first base. Look for him in the Futures Game next week at Yankee Stadium, as he is one of the strongest bats on the USA squad's roster.
Even with surprise dominance of Cliff Lee— my mid-season pick as the Cy Young in the American League—the Indians have struggled to score runs, posting a -6 run differential as of Tuesday afternoon. At the time of the trade, the Indians had posted a 37-41 record, 14 games back in the Central. Slugging catcher Victor Martinez, yet to hit a home run, has been hurt, an unhealthy Hafner, with a .677 OPS, appears to be on the decline and Grady Sizemore is the only regular with an OPS above .900. Sizemore, though, has been one of the premier outfielders yet again so far, hitting .269/.372/.541 with 22 home runs from the leadoff spot—do not get me started on this, he should be batting third—while playing his usual excellent defense in center field.
To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.
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