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NL Central Wheeling and Dealing

CC SabathiaThe non-waiver trade deadline is not until July 31, but I doubt there will be any bigger trades than the CC Sabathia and Rich Harden deals. With the Brewers clearing going all in on this season, and the Cubs seemingly immediately responding, these trades have sparked a bona fide pennant race in the NL Central. Sure, other races have been close in recent years, but teams competing against one another rarely both bolster their rosters with such significant acquisitions. So, who got the better ends of these deals? I will start with CC:

Brewers acquire LHP CC Sabathia from the Indians for OF Matt LaPorta, LHP Zach Jackson, RHP Rob Bryson, and a player to be named later

The Brewers side: They more than shore up their rotation by adding a perennial Cy Young candidate without giving up anyone on their 25-man roster. Additionally, Sabathia should help out Milwaukee's shaky bullpen for two reasons. First, his addition to the starting staff allows a starter (and theoretically a better arm) to slide into the bullpen. Also, CC eats up enough innings to essentially hide the thin bullpen every fifth day, and in turn keep it fresh. Looking at this trade purely based on its impact for the rest of 2008, it is hard to imagine any trade having a greater positive impact on any team.

But, this deal is still a major gamble. There is absolutely no way Milwaukee can re-sign both Sheets and Sabathia, so this is the classic rent-a-player situation. These kinds of deals are clearly worth it if a team wins a championship, or sometimes worth it with a deep playoff run. Either way, the Brewers must now make the playoffs for this trade to possibly be a success, and the fact remains that they are on the outside looking in as of today (though only by half a game). Give Brewers GM Doug Melvin credit for having some serious guts. Still, it is fair to question if a team only on the cusp of the playoffs with a nucleus as young as Milwaukee's and a farm system as strong as Milwaukee's is worth going for a championship with.

The Indians side: Cleveland is suffering through an extremely disappointing season. I figured the pitching would take a step back, as it has, but the real stunner is how bad the offense has been. The Indians gave CC a huge offer to extend his contract in the offseason, and he declined it, so Cleveland knew they would likely lose him after this season. However, they had championship aspirations at the start of the year, and figured holding on to him would be worth it if they stayed in contention. With this trade, Cleveland officially waved the white flag on 2008. Unfortunately, since Sabathia was all but guaranteed to test free agency at the end of this season, his ability to reel in big-time prospects was not what it could be. Teams generally are reluctant to give away huge chunks of their future for what may amount to a three-month hired gun. However, Milwaukee was more eager than most clubs, and the Indians have to be happy with the package they received. Matt LaPorta, the number one player on my 2007 college watchlist, is the centerpiece of the deal. He has been crushing pitches all over AA, and is not that far from the being ready for the majors. If I were Cleveland, I would promote him to AAA and if he fares well enough, give him a September call-up. He will certainly get a long look in spring training next year too, possibly in the outfield or at first base. If history repeats itself, LaPorta could make this deal look silly in a hurry. The last time Cleveland traded a big-time pitcher was Bartolo Colon, and one of the key pieces to that deal was outfielder Grady Sizemore.

LaPorta is far from the only quality player received in this trade though. Rob Bryson, according to scouting reports, has great stuff but is yet to fully harness it. However, his statistics indicate that scouts are not giving him quite enough credit. Though his ERA is at 4.25 in high A right now, he is the victim of bad luck. His WHIP is barely over 1.00, and he has only allowed 3 home runs in 55 innings pitched. Additionally, the 73 strikeouts he has notched in those 55 innings with just 20 walks testify for his overpowering stuff, and indicate to me a little better control than he gets credit for. I expect Cleveland to try to develop him into their closer of the future.

As for Zach Jackson, he really does not look like much. He has been an adequate AAA starter at best, and he may be moved to the bullpen to see if that sparks something in him. Players to be named later tend to not amount to much either, but rumor has it that whoever Cleveland gets to finalize the deal will be another low-level but highly regarded prospect in the Brewers system.

Regardless of the player to be named later, this is a good deal for the Indians, even though they probably did not get talent that equaled CC's current skill level. If CC Sabathia had left as a free agent, Cleveland would have received a compensatory first-round draft pick, so the real measure of this deal is if the Indians got more value than what that pick offered. LaPorta was a first-round pick, and he is a safer bet at this point to pan out than any draft pick Cleveland would have received. I probably would have done the deal for him alone, given CC's contract situation, but Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro was also able to acquire an intriguing arm in Bryson, and potentially another solid prospect with the PTBNL. There is a reason Shapiro is considered one of the best in the business.

Final thoughts: This is definitely a good deal for the Indians, but nobody will know how good of a deal this is for the Brewers until the season is over. Melvin showed some serious intestinal fortitude with this trade, because it will look horrible if the Brewers do not make the playoffs. However, it is not as if he traded away Milwaukee's entire future, thanks to the strength of their farm system. It is a bold move, but not a careless one. It really could work.

Cubs acquire RHP Rich Harden and RHP Chad Gaudin from the Athletics for RHP Sean Gallagher, OF Matt Murton, 2B/OF Eric Patterson, and C Josh Donaldson

The Cubs side: I buy that this trade has been in the works for a while, but I do not buy that is merely coincidence that it was finalized a day after the CC deal. This is not a knee-jerk reaction to what the Brewers pulled off, but I think the Cubs went from mulling over how much to give up for Harden to finalizing the trade once CC became a Brewer. In Harden, the Cubs acquired one of the most dominating pitchers in all of baseball, but also one of the most oft-injured. He will take Gallagher's spot in the rotation, and he makes the Cubs rotation formidable. Really, if Harden stays healthy, it is hard to find any true weakness on the team. Getting Gaudin was a good idea too, because he could step in and be an effective starter if Harden gets injured.

The Athletics side: Despite an underwhelming offense, the A's were in contention. In fact, I thought they were in a somewhat similar position to the Brewers heading into the All-Star break. It is interesting how different teams handle similar situations in drastically different ways. Though Harden could be controlled by the A's for another year and a half before hitting free agency, Sean Gallagher has two and a half years before he even hits arbitration and he can take Harden's rotation spot immediately. Though he is not near Harden's current ability level, durability is worth something, and he is well on his way to becoming a darn good pitcher in his own right.

Of the other players acquired, Matt Murton is definitely the best. Most see him as a third or fourth outfielder, but I think he is better than that. His hitting is underrated, and he especially should upgrade the A's lineup. Eric Patterson does not excite me a ton, but he should be a nice bench player, and does give the team some insurance if Mark Ellis leaves in free agency after the season. Josh Donaldson (#24 on my 2007 college player watchlist) has not shown much this year in low-A, but he was incredible in the Northwest League last year, and I am guessing the A's really liked him when he was in college as well.

Final thoughts: Billy Beane has made many teams look foolish in deals, but there is no way the Cubs will be another victim if Rich Harden stays healthy. That is a big if though. It is clear that the A's gave away more talent in this trade, yet they did upgrade their offense and acquired a good young pitcher that they control at minimum salary for two and a half years. Harden's value had peaked at this point, and Murton was probably undervalued. It all adds up to the A's winning this deal, but three months with a healthy Harden will make the Cubs clear winners. This is a gamble by Chicago, though a much different one from Milwaukee's. It is one I would have taken.

Both of these deals exemplify trading at its finest. They both feature teams taking significant risks that have legitimate chances of working out. They both also have teams that are displaying tremendous long-term vision, rebuilding the proper way. This is what baseball at the front office level is all about. It is hard to pick clear-cut winners and losers in these deals because the teams involved have such different agendas. Between the Cubs and Brewers, I think the Cubs swung a better deal. Between the Indians and A's, I think the Indians did better. Ultimately, both of these deals could be remembered as great ones for both sides for years to come, which is what makes them such great trades.