Good Start to the Second Half

Raul IbanezA series between the Mariners and Indians sounded a lot more appealing at the start of the season, but that can be said about pretty much any series the Mariners play. Still, as long as Felix is on the mound, this team is fun to watch. I won't say that Felix's growth this year has gone overlooked, but it is harder to notice players that take steps forward when the front office continues to talk about how much the team has underachieved. Sure, the Indians offense is bad, but Felix had few problems dispatching them, and his ERA now sits at a shimmering 2.95.

The only thing out of the ordinary with Felix's start last night was the run support he got. Aaron Laffey was shaky, and Raul Ibanez made him pay dearly with his grand slam. With Felix on the mound, that felt like it would be plenty, but then Jose Lopez added a three-run homer a couple innings later. It was nice to see some power and some runners on base out of this offense, especially for the pitcher that deserves them more than anyone else.

It is just one game, but maybe it is a sign that this team will bounce back a bit in the second half. J.J. had a nice rehab outing in AAA last night too. Bryan LaHair is finally up. Apparently he had a little injury, which is why the M's did not call him up once they released Sexson. That makes the bizarre timing of the move a little more palatable, but I still would have called him up. Tug barely played, and now LaHair probably won't with a string of left-handed starters. It will be awkward if LaHair takes a whole week to play after Riggleman said that he plans to give LaHair plenty of playing time, but at least he is on the team. Riggleman is even thinking about putting Jeff Clement out there a bit at first from time to time, a move the whole organization has shied away from, with little good reason, for years. What's next; will they consider cutting Jose Vidro, or putting Brandon Morrow in the starting rotation?

Maybe there is reason for hope in the second half. Maybe this team will finally put its best product on the field. The Mariners are inching towards maximizing its own personnel with each move, and maybe one of these days Riggleman will wake up and realize that the most worthless player in all of baseball should not bat clean-up on a regular basis. Maybe, just maybe, what is left of the season will be better than what has already transpired.

Bryan LaHair Called Up

Bryan LaHairFor such a slow day on the field in baseball, it has been a pretty active day off it. While the focus nationally is on the Blanton trade, the Mariners made a little noise today by calling up Bryan LaHair. To make room on the roster, they sent down Tug Hulett to Tacoma. LaHair is arguably the shrewdest draft choice Pat Gillick ever made as GM of the Mariners, considering he was drafted in the 39th round back in 2002.

I have no problem with LaHair being on the roster. In fact, I think it has been time for a while. I do not think he is the first baseman of the future, but the Miguel Cairo/Jose Vidro/recently departed Richie Sexson disaster certainly is not. If I were in charge of the team right now, Vidro would be LONG gone, LaHair would be the everyday first baseman, Sexson and Ibanez would be platooning at DH, and left field would admittedly be a bit of a mess. But, regardless of the left fielder, that lineup would provide noticeably better defense at no cost to the offensive production.

My problem is not with Bryan LaHair, it is with Jose Vidro and whoever stands in the way of him getting cut. How is he still on the team, batting FOURTH nonetheless?! Jose Vidro is the most worthless player in the major leagues right now. Few would argue that he is the worst DH in baseball, and he is only a DH because his knees do not allow him to really field at all at this point. So, to recap, Vidro hits for no average, very limited power, does not work counts all that well anymore either, has no speed, cannot play anywhere on defense much, and his remaining "skills" are only going to deteriorate with time. I rest my case.

After a month of somewhat cogent decisions, the past couple weeks have me worried and depressed about the Mariners future again. Jared Wells was brought up for only one game, did not appear, and then was sent back down. Tug Hulett wasn't up much longer, but at least got his first MLB hit for the trouble. If LaHair was going to come up anyway once Sexson was released (which seemed inevitable), why wasn't he called up instead of Hulett in the first place? LaHair did not make the PCL All-Star team, so there is no good reason.

I will give Lee Pelekoudas and Jim Riggleman passes on long-term plans, given that they are interim hires. I do not think it would be all that hard for either to think long-term with this team, even in their current roles, but I will still give them the benefit of the doubt. Still, that is no excuse for an inability to manage the roster through 2008. Rapid roster shuffles do nobody any good, and makes it look like the franchise is in even more chaos than it is (or at least should be). The Mariners are not in good shape, but they can do better than this. Why they do not cut Vidro, the move 99% of primates would figure out in the first 12 seconds if they were handed the GM job, blows my mind. Why the team cuts players and does not bring up the obvious/only replacement, and then calls up the obvious/only replacement a week later, blows my mind. Where is the grasp of the obvious? I am tired of incompetence.

Joe Blanton Traded to Phillies

Joe BlantonThe Oakland A's traded their second starting pitcher away in as many weeks, this time dealing RHP Joe Blanton to the Phillies for LHP Josh Outman, 2B Adrian Cardenas, and OF Matthew Spencer. This is not nearly as big of a deal as the Rich Harden one, but still points towards the A's plan to re-stock their system with young players that will come of age (hit free agency) in their new ballpark in Fremont (when they have a bigger budget). In the wake of the Rich Harden deal, and going back to the off-season where Dan Haren and Nick Swisher were traded away, this pales in comparison. Nonetheless, a Billy Beane deal should never be overlooked:

The Phillies side - Welcome to the closest thing to the mid '90s Mariners since...well, the mid '90s Mariners. Philadelphia's lineup is loaded, but their pitching is rather weak, with the major exception of Cole Hamels, a tall lefty with a penchant for strikeouts (I'm not kidding, this team is similar to those mid 90's M's squads). Jamie Moyer and Kyle Kendrick are both somewhere between serviceable and solid, so the rotation could really use at least two arms. However, with limited depth in the farm system, getting impact pitchers may be tough. Enter Joe Blanton, who at the very least will eat up some innings and did not cost the team everyone down on the farm. He is an upgrade over Adam Eaton, the man he is likely to replace, and as an added bonus he won't hit free agency until 2010.

However, how well Blanton will do is up for debate. Conventional wisdom says that he should fare a little better in the NL because a talent gap still exists. However, while every other pitcher on the A's staff seems to produce beyond their ability level, Joe Blanton was having a worse year than expected. The rise of the entire pitching staff is likely due to an underrated defense, and yet Blanton is still worse despite that. So, between going to a worse defense and a worse park for pitchers, I do not see Blanton gaining anything from playing a bit worse competition. Still, I am not sure the Phillies could get a better pitcher for the price, especially when Blanton's favorable contract situation is also considered.

The Athletics side - Trade rumors have swirled around Joe Blanton for a very long time, and this is one of the few guys the A's have traded in recent memory at less than peak value. They very likely would have received a better package for him if they had traded him in the off-season, thanks to a sub-par showing thus far in 2008. That does not make this a disappointing deal necessarily though.

Blanton was the A's opening day starter, but at this point he was pretty clearly the fifth best starter in their rotation, even with Sean Gallagher replacing Rich Harden. Oakland also understands that their underrated defense has helped their pitching staff produce beyond expectations, making Joe Blanton's disappointing season even more disappointing than it may seem at first glance. Thus, even though Blanton's value has dropped some since last off-season, he probably is still overrated, especially in the trade deadline market, where teams tend to be willing to give up more for starting pitchers.

Oakland received three prospects in this deal, Matthew Spencer, Josh Outman, and Adrian Cardenas. I do not think Spencer will amount to much, though he is still only 22 years old. If he amounts to something, it will be with a powerful bat. Outman is a 23-year-old lefty in AA right now with both starting and relieving experience. What the A's will have him do in their system I do not know. Overall, his numbers are quite good, but not eye-popping. He seems to be a safe bet to make the majors, but be closer to a spare part than permanent fixture.

The best player Oakland got in this trade is Adrian Cardenas. He is just 20 years old, and holding his own well in high A right now. He has good speed, which should also mean good range at second base. He also already hits for good average, and shows a good approach at the plate. Cardenas is still a minimum of two years away from the majors, but he should be a good starting option at second base once he develops.

Bottom line - This should be a trade that helps both sides. Joe Blanton does upgrade the Phillies starting staff, and they certainly could afford to give up a second base prospect with Chase Utley entrenched there for many years to come. As for the A's, I think this deal is remarkably good for them. Gio Gonzalaez and Trevor Cahill both look like great starters down the road, so they will not have any problem replacing Joe Blanton in their long-term plan. In the short term, Gonzalez is also an option, but I think they should give Dallas Braden a look. He performed very poorly when given a chance last year, but his AAA numbers are too good over the last two years to not give him a chance. I would not be surprised if Braden ends up being an upgrade over what they have got out of Blanton this year. It would wreak of Billy Beane magic.

This trade is not badly lop-sided, but I still think Oakland got the better end of it. They have in-house options to fill Blanton's spot that are likely at least as good as Blanton has been. In the long-term, they definitely have guys who look even better. If I were the Phillies I would have tried to keep Outman out of the deal, given that they are trading for pitching because their pitching is thin in the first place, and Outman is ultimately what tips the scale in favor of the A's for me in this deal. However, it is not like Outman is going to make this deal look awful for Philadelphia.

In the end, this trade proves once again how bold, borderline insane, and brilliant Billy Beane is. Is there another GM that would trade two pitchers the caliber of Harden and Blanton mid-season, and seriously believe their team can still contend? I am not sure any other GM would even be allowed to do what Beane has done in the past year. He continues to be proactive in a sport where most are reactive, and above all, he understands how to maintain the upper hand in bargaining like no other. Beane has some old-fashioned traits that are integral to his success; he is more than Moneyball and sabermetrics.

Mitch Canham Feature on ESPN.com

Mitch CanhamMy 2007 college prospects list has been at the center of baseball news as of late. A couple weeks ago it was Matt LaPorta and Josh Donaldson switching teams in the CC Sabathia and Rich Harden deals, respectively. Today I ran across a feature on ESPN.com about Mitch Canham. As a quick refresher, here is what I had to say about Canham heading into the 2007 draft:
Catcher is not a high priority for the Mariners, but Canham might be too good to pass up. He's a complete offensive player, but what really caught my eye was a particular comment by Pat Casey, the head baseball coach at Oregon State. Said Casey, "Mitch is the best leader in the country - there’s nobody who has a leader better than Mitch Canham on and off the field. He’s the heart and soul of our club.” Now, Casey is probably a little jaded, but all indications are that Canham's intangibles are spectacular. On Canham's OSU bio page, he lists fishing and helping the community as his interests, and in high school he earned the team Sportsmanship award, as well as honors in math, social studies, and school in general (he accumulated a 3.98 GPA). Oh, and if that wasn't enough, he's from Lake Stevens, Washington. So, though Canham's game is solid, it's all the intangibles that boost him up to this spot on the board.
Canham is having a solid year in high A ball, but the numbers are remarkable given his current situation. For a very tangible look at Canham's intangibles, check out the ESPN.com feature on him. Canham is the only prospect in the last three years that I have bumped up on my board based solely on intangibles and character, and the feature illuminates all those unbelievable qualities that Canham has.

AL Takes Its Time Before Winning

Yankee Stadium scoreboardThis All Star Game was as much about sending off Yankee Stadium in style as it was about celebrating the great players in the game today. Josh Hamilton's display in the home run derby certainly added one more great memory, and whatever the All Star Game lacked in pizazz it certainly made up for in sheer length. In many ways, the All Star Game this year was meant to say good bye to Yankee Stadium, but instead the game looked like it would never say farewell. The game was for the most part well-played and had its moments (Rivera taking the hill in the ninth comes to mind for me), the whole marathon will be remembered more than any singular play. At least it will be remembered for something, which Yankee Stadium deserves.

Kudos to both Terry Francona and Clint Hurdle for somehow going 15 innings without severely overtaxing a pitcher. Somehow they both managed to use most of everyone by the ninth inning while still having the capability to play several extra frames. Granted, they do have a much larger roster than normal at their disposal, but they still went a full four innings farther than the now-infamous 2002 Milwaukee tie.

What would have happened if last night's game had gone on longer? Both teams were down to their last pitcher, and both probably could have gone only one more inning maximum. There is no luxury of a tie anymore now that the All-Star game determines home field advantage for the World Series. Admittedly, situations like last night's are quite rare, but baseball dodged a pretty big bullet when Justin Morneau slid into home just ahead of Brian McCann's tag.

Still, tonight pointed out how silly baseball's current rules for the All-Star game are. I won't belabor a point that I have written about before, but I will repeat this: Major League Baseball needs to decide if the All-Star Game is an exhibition or a serious competition. Fans vote on the starting lineups like the game is an exhibition, but Major League Baseball awards World Series home field advantage like the game is a serious competition. These two will never co-exist well together, and trying to make them co-exist has led to a complicated, clumsy, and awkward system. I would prefer to make the All Star Game a complete exhibition, but clearly siding either way will result in a better system than the one in place right now.

Hamilton Steals Show

Josh HamiltonI know Justin Morneau won the Home Run Derby, but is there any question who the people's champ is in this one? A year from now, most people outside Minnesota and British Columbia will have likely forgotten who won this year's derby. However, nobody who watched tonight's slugging exhibition will forget Josh Hamilton's performance.

Despite all the over-the-top Hollywood tales spun, there are still real life stories that are even more unrealistic. Josh Hamilton is one of those people with one of those stories. He wasn't supposed to be one of those people, which to a certain extent is precisely what makes him one of those people. Ask any baseball scout ten years ago if they could see Hamilton bashing balls around the yard like he did tonight, and they would probably ask you how you could not. Hamilton had it all - the size, the bat speed, the raw power, a cannon for an arm, foot speed. He was an athlete. He was a ballplayer. He was everything. In 1999, the Devil Rays made him a first round draft pick. First overall to be exact. They picked him over Josh Beckett, who went second overall to the Marlins. Both were can't-miss prospects.

So, in 2003 while the Marlins stunned everyone by taking the World Series from the Yankees in Yankee Stadium, at least on some level it was not all that surprising. After all, it was Josh Beckett, the can't-miss prospect, who took the ball in game six for Florida (on short rest no less), and never handed the ball to anyone else. It was Beckett, the can't-miss prospect, who came of age with the baseball world watching, on baseball's most hallowed ground.

But what about the other guy, that Hamilton kid? What was he up to as Beckett became a bona fide star? Well, he was not playing in the World Series. No post-season at-bats for him either. Of course, it did not help Hamilton that the Devil Rays did not make the playoffs. But, Hamilton didn't even trot out on a major league field at any point that year, or a minor league one for that matter. While Beckett was blossoming, Hamilton was self-destructing. He was completely out of baseball thanks to drugs.

Baseball has had its share of drug abusers and alcoholics, even quite successful ones. But they had not quit baseball like Hamilton to deal with their problems. His were serious. Hamilton's problems were not career-threatening; they had already finished off his career. His days were numbered, period. His story was one of complete tragedy, made even more glaring by Beckett's simultaneous ascension to stardom.

By 2006, the story of these two can't-miss prospects had been written. Josh Beckett had been traded to the Red Sox for every top prospect Boston had outside of Jon Lester and Jonathan Papelbon, and Josh Hamilton was still completely out of baseball. To Hamilton's credit, he was still alive. Considering the path to stardom Hamilton had been on, it was not exactly a good ending, but given where he seemed to be heading, it was better than expected. The only problem with the ending was that Josh Hamilton did not accept that it was the end.

Like many athletes who fall from grace, not necessarily because of off the field issues, Hamilton had his eyes set on making a comeback. Still just 26 years old, Hamilton had youth on his side, a powerful ally few athletes who try to come back have in their corner. Still, there were those pesky three years away from anything resembling competitive baseball. Those were three strikes against Hamilton, in a game where three strikes means you are out.

However, for Hamilton, that third strike must have got past the catcher. Against all odds, after nearly four years away from pro ball when it was all said and done, Josh Hamilton appeared in a New York-Penn League game for the Hudson Valley Renegades. I doubt Hamilton had dreams about the Renegades back on draft day, but this was a dream come true now. This was the kind of story Hollywood looks for, with at least a hint of reality. It is still Hudson Valley after all.

Truth be told, there was not much hope of making the big leagues for a 26-year-old who batted .260 in the New York-Penn League. The only hope was that Hamilton still had to shake off rust. But, after almost four years away from the game, battling the demons that he had, there was good reason to believe that he was a shell of the player he used to be.

This is where the story gets so unrealistic it has to be real. As fate would have it, Josh Hamilton ended up being eligible for the Rule 5 draft after the 2006 season, a draft actually designed for good players stuck in the minors with one organization for whatever reason. Surprisingly, baseball has not thought much about highly-touted players who nearly kill themselves with drugs and come back to the game years later, right at the beginning of what should be their prime. Needless to say, Hamilton did not quite fit the mold of Rule 5 player, yet he was still eligible. The Cincinnati Reds decided to take a chance on him. Any Rule 5 draftee must stay on a team's 25-man roster, so Josh Hamilton had finally made the major leagues. Just like that, he had a chance he seemed to have no chance at, all things considered.

Nobody knew what the Reds were getting in Josh Hamilton, probably not even Hamilton himself. What few stats he had accumulated in the minor leagues were utterly meaningless at this point. There was always the chance that he could go back to drugs too. There were plenty of reasons to expect Josh Hamilton would fail, even after beating all the odds to make it to Hudson Valley. Still, a Rule 5 draft pick is a pretty cheap price to pay to try to catch lightning in a bottle.

There must have been lightning in that bottle, because there was certainly thunder in Hamilton's bat. He started the year as a bench player, which was remarkable enough, but he forced his way into the lineup with a barrage of home runs that never seemed to stop. Scouts and players alike were talking about the shows he put on in batting practice too. Now, the comeback was truly complete. He had made the major leagues, and he was turning heads left and right. On the other hand though, wasn't this all how it was supposed to be? What if some scout had bunkered themselves down for Y2K and just come up for air? Beckett's exploits would not have been a surprise, and neither would have Hamilton's. Both of them were can't-miss prospects, and surprise surprise, they had not missed.

Tonight everything came full circle. Experts inside baseball knew of Hamilton's power, but there still was the public perception that this year's derby field lacked star power. As fate would have it, Hamilton batted last in the first round, and everyone before him had put on modest displays by derby standards. Before Hamilton, it looked like it would live up to its lackluster billing. This was hardly the way Yankee Stadium should be sent out. Then, with a few swings (28 to be exact), Josh Hamilton made the world right again.

Congratulations to Justin Morneau for winning the derby, but with all due respect this was Josh Hamilton's night. He came of age with the baseball world watching, on baseball's most hallowed ground, kind of like some other can't-miss prospect. If that was not enough, Hamilton's pitcher in the derby was Clay Counsil, his brother's American Legion baseball coach. What was this night like for Counsil? He surely watched Hamilton develop into the future star the Devil Rays drafted, probably from behind a b.p. screen much of the time, and there he was again as Hamilton finally reached his destiny. How did he Counsil it all together? He took the Yankee stadium mound in front of a sell-out crowd on national television (feeling any butterflies yet?), and then pitched to a player that must be unlike any other he has ever been around on so many levels. Then again, Counsil is a long-time coach, and it was just glorified b.p. It must have been surreal, like something he had done so many times before, yet never done before.

Above everything else, what was it like for Josh Hamilton when a sold-out crowd at Yankee Stadium started chanting his name? All he had to do was look down at the tattoos on his right forearm to remember where he had been. All he had to do was look out to the mound to remember what he had been destined for. All he had to do to was step out of the batter's box and listen to soak in where he is now. A smile could not be wiped off of Hamilton's face.

Hollywood would never dare to write a story like this. Only reality does.

Sexson Latest Casualty

Richie SexsonThe Mariners called up two players from Tacoma today, INF Tug Hulett and RHP Jared Wells. Tug has been playing primarily second base, but he has also played some shortstop and has limited experience at third, first, and even in the outfield. He primarily batted lead-off for the Rainiers, and while he will not be a star, he is a pretty solid player. He has more power than his size implies, and he has good plate discipline. Hulett was the player the M's received when they traded 1B Ben Broussard to the Rangers. Jared Wells was a promising prospect in the Padres system until he started to suck, to put it bluntly. He still possesses plus stuff, and he has pitched better since joining Tacoma. He was the player the Mariners received from San Diego when they traded RHP Cha Seung Baek to them after designating Baek for assignment.

Now to the real news. The new players took two spots vacated by much more noteworthy moves. There was room for Wells once the M's placed Erik Bedard on the 15-day DL. Popular thought was that Bedard would go on the DL to clear a spot for Felix's return, so either Wells is only around for a few days, or another move is in the works (my hunch is that Batista might head to the DL). As for Hulett, he takes the spot formerly filled by Richie Sexson. After weeks of speculation and a year and a half of lackluster production, Big Richie finally became the latest casualty in this debacle of a season. The timing was a little odd, especially with Richie being on a mild hot streak by Richie standards, but Jim Riggleman said he could tell that Richie was not pleased with being benched, and Riggleman did not see how he would get off the bench much with how the next couple weeks were going to go. Whatever the reason, this move seemed inevitable ever since the Mariners started making major changes.

Richie became a popular target for 2008's frustrations, but the collapse is not his fault. This team won 88 games a year ago with him underperforming just as badly at first base last year. He worked hard to regain his old form, but he just could not find it. Despite the boos and benchings, Richie never complained. The closest he did was apparently on Tuesday night, when Riggleman felt his body language showed frustration over not playing. Frankly, I would be concerned if an everyday player did not react somehow to being benched. It is easy to point a finger at the man hitting around .200 with minimal power and limited defense making $15.5 million, because the team definitely did not get its money's worth. However, Richie did not become lazy, or a clubhouse cancer. He tried as hard as he could. The reality is that Richie is what he is at this point. This is more than a slump. This is what a player past his prime looks like.

Fingers should be pointed at the man who signed Richie Sexson, Bill Bavasi. I guess they already have been pointed since he was fired, but the contract he offered Sexson was doomed the second Richie inked it. Let's flash back to when Richie was a free agent. He was coming off of a major shoulder injury that cost him nearly all of his lone year as a Diamondback. However, while with the Brewers, he had developed into a feared power hitter. Despite the shoulder injury, Bill Bavasi decided to sign the then 30-year-old Sexson to a whopping 4 year, $50 million contract.

It is easy to say that was a bad decision now, but even then it should have been obvious that this was a bad contract. Even if the M's had full confidence that the shoulder was fine (and it turned out to be), most teams were concerned, and I doubt the Mariners really needed to give Sexson as much money as they did. Plus, injury not withstanding, Richie in his prime was still 6'8" and struck out a ton. He offset both of these significant disadvantages by developing great plate discipline and shortening his stroke. Though his height is a major source for his power, the list of hitters as tall as Richie Sexson succeeding is painfully short. This game is just tougher for taller hitters, likely due to a larger strike zone to cover and naturally longer swings. So, was it reasonable to expect Richie Sexson to continue to produce at a high level as he entered the twilight of his physical prime? The answer is obvious now, but given how difficult it was going to be for Richie to beat father time with his body type, the Mariners should have known back when they signed him that there was a decent chance he would not age gracefully.

What is even worse is that the previous Mariners regime was completely oblivious to all the warning signs. In 2005, Richie's first year with the M's, he was fantastic. Even in 2006 he was still good, but he slipped noticeably. Some noticed, but then-manager Mike Hargrove did not bat an eye, claiming Richie was here to hit home runs and nothing else mattered. True, Richie still swatted his share of bombs. But, at the very least an observant baseball person should have furrowed their brows over the drop-off, noticed the complete lack of first baseman in the farm system that precipitated Richie's signing in the first place, and drafted a first base prospect. Year after year the Mariners did not, all while Richie went from regressing to plummeting off the face of the earth.

That is how the Mariners got to this point. That is how a team dumps a light-hitting first baseman making $15.5 million with no legitimate replacement. I am rooting for Bryan LaHair, and I have to give credit to Bavasi and scouting director Bob Fontaine for finding a talent as good as him in the 35th round of a draft. But, he is not starting material, and I do not think he ever will be. Marshall Hubbard and Johan Limonta both offer a little promise in AA, but the fact remains that the previous leadership was relying on fringe prospects to pan out in the farm system. They never had a legitimate long-term plan for first base despite every indication that disaster would strike if the issue was not addressed. Bavasi and company seemed to all close their eyes, cover their ears, and tell themselves over and over, "Richie hits the ball a country mile. Richie hits the ball a country mile. Richie hits the ball a country mile..."

Well, Richie did hit the ball a country mile, but he does not so much anymore. It is as if he continues to get older. Fancy that. Thanks, Bill Bavasi. Thanks alot.

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.

My 2008 All-Star Teams

I have a five step process for selecting All-Star teams that I should patent. It works better than whatever is actually used. Now that the rosters have been expanded to 32 players, it is not that hard to put together a decent squad. Granted, there are still a few snubs and some surprising picks, but the system is still good. Here is how to build an All-Star team, and who I would have selected:

STEP 1 - PICK THE BEST PLAYER AT EACH POSITION

Pick the starters for each position first. If there is no obvious choice, popularity and team performance become factors. Using this approach, the starting lineups would be:

AL

Ian Kinsler, 2B, Rangers
Grady Sizemore, CF, Indians
Alex Rodriguez, 3B, Yankees
Milton Bradley, DH, Rangers
Josh Hamilton, LF, Rangers
Kevin Youkilis, 1B, Red Sox
J.D. Drew, RF, Red Sox
Joe Mauer, C, Twins
Michael Young, SS, Rangers

Cliff Lee, SP, Indians
NL

Hanley Ramirez, SS, Marlins
Lance Berkman, 1B, Astros
Chipper Jones, 3B, Braves
Albert Pujols, DH, Cardinals
Matt Holliday, RF, Rockies
Chase Utley, 2B, Phillies
Pat Burrell, LF, Phillies
Ryan Ludwick, CF, Cardinals
Geovany Soto, C, Cubs

Tim Lincecum, SP, Giants


The fan voting was pretty good this year, and has been the last several years, but for what it is worth there is my ballot, with starting pitchers included. I also pick the best closer in each league in this step, and for the AL I picked Mariano Rivera, and for the NL Brad Lidge.

STEP 2 - PICK THE BEST PLAYER FROM EACH TEAM

This is the step that makes my process somewhat unique. It seems that the last step tends to be making sure every team is represented. However, since every team must be represented, it makes sense to me to make sure that every team has their best player on the team. It should ensure the strongest roster possible. Not surprisingly, several teams' best players are in the starting lineup, so this step leaves plenty of spots remaining. However, I do not limit this step to only teams not yet represented. If a couple players on a team are close, the player that fits a need on the All-Star team gets the nod. Here are the players added at this point to each squad:

AL - Nick Markakis, OF, Orioles; Jermaine Dye, OF, White Sox; Magglio Ordonez, OF, Tigers; Joakim Soria, CP, Royals; John Lackey, SP, Angels; Rich Harden, SP, Athletics; Felix Hernandez, SP, Mariners; Scott Kazmir, SP, Rays; Roy Halladay, SP, Blue Jays

NL - Brandon Webb, SP, Diamondbacks; Edinson Volquez, SP, Reds; Russell Martin, C, Dodgers; Ben Sheets, SP, Brewers; Johan Santana, SP, Mets; Jason Bay, OF, Pirates; Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Padres; Cristian Guzman, SS, Nationals

STEP 3 - IDENTIFY THE "OBVIOUS" RESERVES

After going through each team and picking their best player, there is a crop of players that are hard to ignore. This is where I add those guys, hopefully eliminating obvious snubs. Admittedly, there is not real firm criteria for this, but it is generally a pool of guys that are among the best on their team and/or the best in the league at their position. This is where my process gets a little tricky though. These guys are not guaranteed to make the team. I put them in a list for players that will fill out the roster.

AL - Brian Roberts, 2B, Orioles; Jonathan Papelbon, CP, Red Sox; Curtis Granderson, OF, Tigers; Zack Greinke, SP, Royals; Francisco Rodriguez, CP, Angels; Joe Saunders, SP, Angels; Ervin Santana, SP, Angels; Justin Morneau, 1B, Twins; Joe Nathan, CP, Twins; Justin Duchscherer, SP, Athletics; Evan Longoria, 3B, Rays; Troy Percival, CP, Rays; Shaun Marcum, SP, Blue Jays

NL - Dan Haren, SP, Diamondbacks; Kerry Wood, CP, Cubs; Adam Dunn, OF, Reds; Dan Uggla, 2B, Marlins; Carlos Lee, OF, Astros; Ryan Braun, OF, Brewers; Billy Wagner, CP, Mets; David Wright, 3B, Mets; Jose Reyes, SS, Mets; Xavier Nady, OF, Pirates; Nate McLouth, OF, Pirates; Jake Peavy, SP, Padres; Jon Rauch, CP, Nationals

Jon Rauch is on the list only because he could replace Cristian Guzman if needed to make the roster work.

STEP 4 - IDENTIFY THE FAN FAVORITES/LIVING LEGENDS

The All-Star game should be both a stage to show off emerging talent and one to pay homage to the living legends. These players are not having their finest seasons, but they still need to be considered. None of these players are guaranteed spots either, but they are also ranked in a list and considered to fill out the roster, like the players in step three:

AL - Manny Ramirez, OF, Red Sox; Ivan Rodriguez, C, Tigers; Vladimir Guerrero, OF, Angels; Derek Jeter, SS, Yankees; Ichiro, Mariners;

NL - Randy Johnson, SP, Diamondbacks; Ken Griffey Jr., OF, Reds; Greg Maddux, SP, Padres; Trevor Hoffman, CP, Padres;

STEP 5 - FILL OUT THE ROSTERS

Out of the two lists I have compiled, I do what I can to make a balanced roster. I carry at least one reserve for every starter, and a minimum of 10 pitchers. That leaves four spots to do whatever with. It is still a little tough, but here are the final reserves for each team when all is said and done:

AL

Ivan Rodriguez, C, Tigers
Justin Morneau, 1B, Twins
Brian Roberts, 2B, Orioles
Derek Jeter, SS, Yankees
Evan Longoria, 3B, Rays
Manny Ramirez, OF, Red Sox
Vladimir Guerrero, OF, Angels
Jermaine Dye, OF, White Sox
Magglio Ordonez, OF, Tigers
Ichiro, OF, Mariners

John Lackey, SP, Angels
Scott Kazmir, SP, Rays
Roy Halladay, SP, Blue Jays
Rich Harden, SP, Athletics
Felix Hernandez, SP, Mariners
Justin Duchscherer, SP, Athletics
Joe Saunders, SP, Angels
Francisco Rodriguez, CP, Angels
Joakim Soria, CP, Royals
Jonathan Papelbon, CP, Red Sox
Joe Nathan, CP, Twins
NL

Russell Martin, C, Dodgers
Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Padres
Dan Uggla, 2B, Marlins
Jose Reyes, SS, Mets
David Wright, 3B, Mets
Ryan Braun, OF, Brewers
Jason Bay, OF, Pirates
Carlos Lee, OF, Brewers
Adam Dunn, OF, Reds
Nate McLouth, OF, Pirates
Ken Griffey Jr., OF, Reds

Johan Santana, SP, Mets
Jake Peavy, SP, Padres
Dan Haren, SP, Diamondbacks
Brandon Webb, SP, Diamondbacks
Ben Sheets, SP, Brewers
Edinson Volquez, SP, Reds
Greg Maddux, SP, Padres
Jon Rauch, CP, Nationals
Kerry Wood, CP, Cubs
Billy Wagner, CP, Mets


There will always be a couple deserving players that do not make it, and a couple debated selections, but this system works well if you ask me. It tends to get a good mix between young emerging stars, players having surprise years, fan favorites, and all-time greats.