THT round table: Sabathia and Harden

On Monday, the Milwaukee Brewers acquired CC Sabathia from the Cleveland Indians for Matt LaPorta, Rob Bryson, Zack Jackson, and a player to be named later. Tuesday, the Cubs responded, dealing Sean Gallagher, Matt Murton, Eric Patterson, and Josh Donaldson to the Oakland A’s for Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin. THT writers chime in on the moves.

Josh Kalk: I’ll chime in first. The Cubs are still the favorite in the NL Central and would have been without making this move. Adding Sabathia pushes the Brewers right around that 90 win plateau but the Cubs were already above that level. While the Brewers were right at the sweet spot where adding a guy like Sabathia might push them over the top this move by the Cubs had nothing to winning in the regular season it was all about winning in the post season. The team that is the big loser in all of this right now is the Cardinals. General perception was the that Cardinals were overachievers to this point and while I think their talent isn’t getting as much press as it should now they clearly are the third best team in the Central which likely means no playoffs for them unless something changes.

As far as both deals go personnel wise I would rather have the package that Cleveland got then the package that the A’s got assuming Taylor Green is the PTBNL. I think as Victor Wang wrote yesterday this was win-win trade for both the Brewers and the Indians. I don’t think the A’s got nearly enough and a good argument can be made that they gave up the two best players in the deal. I am very high on Chad Gaudin and he is going to be cheap for a while. The four players that the Cubs gave up are all nice players but none of them are likely to become a star. The A’s really could use a power bat to play one of the corners and got Murton who really has shown little power in his career.

I don’t think this means the balance of power is likely to restored soon. It is highly unlikely Sabathia will resign with the Brewers and the Yankees seem like the obvious destination. The AL still have the best teams top to bottom but what this does is it gives the NL more hope for the World Series. I still would favor the Rays or the Red Sox against any NL team and the Angels and White Sox maybe as well but either the Cubs or the Brewers would be a scary team to play.

Sal Baxamusa: It’s not a matter of performance with Harden—it’s never been. In the THT Season Preview 2008, I wrote “Given his absolutely filthy stuff and his complete inability to stay healthy, the legend of what he could do if only he were healthy will continue to grow with each injury.” Well folks, you’re looking right now at what he can do when healthy: 11+ K/G, 3.47 xFIP, and a 2.45 RA. And he’s doing it all with two pitches, his fastball and some kind of tumbling spuckler-changeup-ghostpitch.

But, believe it or not, Beane sold high on Rich Harden. After making 11 straight starts for the first time since 2005, Harden has more value now than he’s had since he was just cutting his teeth in the majors. And yet, the return seems underwhelming, especially for a pitcher with a reasonable 2009 team option. Piecing together various press reports, it’s likely that the Cubs were were the only team interested, and that Beane had to either trade Harden now, before he broke down again, or keep Harden and see what he could fetch over the offseason, or risk having a broken-down pitcher on his hands with no value.

Look, it’s clear now that Beane has punted 2008. The A’s are playing much better than the Angels but sit five games back. That’s a big deficit at midseason, particularly when you consider that the Angels project as a better team than the A’s going forward. They’re only three out in the wild card, but they’ll have to leapfrog both Minnesota and Boston. Does anyone think the Red Sox will play three or four games worse than the A’s from here on out? But what’s also clear is that in receiving three major-league ready pieces, the A’s think they can gun for a playoff spot as soon as next year. That’s not a bad plan, considering that Kurt Suzuki, Carlos Gonzalez, Ryan Sweeney, Greg Smith, and Dana Eveland are already contributing this year and next year could see the debuts of Gio Gonzalez and possibly Trevor Cahill. If Daric Barton and Travis Buck ever figure things out, the A’s could improve in a hurry.

While this kind of package is probably the best the A’s could have gotten – sad, I know – the inclusion of Chad Gaudin and Eric Patterson seems odd. Gaudin is a solid, cheap young righty with a few control issues but absolutely electric stuff, including a biting slider. He’s exactly the kind of player you don’t throw into trades, as he has tons of value even if he’s just average, and he’s got a lot of upside. The scuttlebutt is that he was included as insurance for Harden going down, but I can’t imagine his inclusion was a dealbreaker.

Patterson’s arrival probably means that Mark Ellis’s days as an Athletic are numbered. Ellis is the type of player it would have made sense to hang onto as a free agent after this year – terribly undervalued, a solid team leader, and a fan favorite. While Patterson might be his equal with the bat, Ellis is good for 15 to 20 runs a year with his glove alone. Ownership’s got to spend their money somewhere, right…right?

Richard Barbieri: Since I generally ply my trade here writing about things that have already happened, I always like the chance to poke my nose into breaking news. And, hold the groans, I think breaking is the operative word here. I just can’t see Harden holding up.

He’s never topped 200 innings, never even topped 190. His career is 189, and that was back in 2004. So not only he is fragile in the past, but he’s already been on the DL this season. Like Sal said, there’s no question of Harden’s quality. But he’s thrown 77 innings already this season, and I’d be shocked if the Cubs—playoffs included—got another 60 from him.

Sal Baxamusa: One thing to keep in mind is that Harden is not throwing his splitter this year, supposedly because it’s much harder on his arm than his other pitches. I suppose there’s a chance that’s enough to keep him healthy. On the other hand, in years past it was reported that the changeup is the pitch on which he hurt himself, so who knows.

Here’s the thing about Harden and his IP totals. His IP totals for his pro career are: 74, 153, 177, 194, 131, 48, and 26. He’s physically mature and capable of pitching 170+ innings. He’s probably as durable as any other pitcher, in the sense that regular pitching doesn’t make him break down.

What’s terrifying is that any given pitch could cause him to tweak an oblique, elbow, back, or shoulder. As I said in the Five Questions preview, “Lord, if it’s all the same to you, could I have a little more light and a little less noise?”

Matthew Carruth: Harden is just too big of an injury risk to command a return on the level of LaPorta, but what the A’s got is certainly decent overall value. The issue here is of perception. The A’s just punted a playoff chance in early July when they’re within 5 games of a spot and the return they got has nobody exciting in it. Beane just traded incredible reward/incredible risk for moderate reward/minimal risk. It’s smart, but underwhelming from an excitement perspective.

Lisa Gray: First, the Sabathia trade.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

I think that this was a win-win for both the Brewers and Indians. Even though Sabathia is almost absolutely a 3 month rental, the Brewers do not appear to have given up any players who are critical for their future success. They absolutely desperately needed at least one ace pitcher for the remainder of the season if they are to have any chance whatsoever of winning in the postseason. The Indians can use LaPorta at either first base or DH for years, as Hafner appears to be finished, and Victor Martinez also may be finished, if he doesn’t recover from his shoulder injuries. I know that many people believe that the Indians should have simply kept Sabathia and taken 2 draft picks, but picks are not a sure thing, and LaPorta certainly appears to be.

Second, the Harden/Gaudin trade.

Even if Harden doesn’t immediately break down, this trade is a win for the Cubs, if only because of Gaudin. The Cubs got rid of a couple of AAAA players and some low-A guy they neither wanted nor needed and a young lefty pitcher who appears to be a #3 guy at best. What I simply can’t understand is this trade from the A’s perspective. Both Harden and Gaudin were relatively cheap. Even if Billy Beane was convinced that Gallagher had a significantly better chance to be productive for the ML team this year and next, why on earth throw in Gaudin for a couple of utility guys?

This appears to be worse than the Hudson/Meyer + Thomas + Cruz trade. Hudson was going to be quite expensive, so I understand getting rid of him, but Billy Beane should have known better than to obtain any pitcher that Cox/Schuerholz were willing to trade away.

Joe Distelheim: One might note the Cubs/Brewers big-pitcher parallel: One durable horse canceling the other (CC/Zambrano), one frequent DL denizen (Sheets/Harden).

Josh Kalk: The problem with that is Sheets’ injuries have been things like his back and hand while Harden’s injuries have been elbow injuries mostly. I think there is some merit to that parallel but it isn’t perfect. If you want to go even further the third best pitcher on each staff is a lefty with a good curve (Parra and Lilly).

Chris Jaffe: I don’t have too much to add. As a Cubs fun I’m thrilled about the A’s trade, though I liked Gallagher.

The recent trades should have a bigger upside for the Brewers this year than the Cubs, though. The Brewers get to jettison their worst starting pitcher from the rotation to make room for the uber-durable Sabathia. Since the Cubs just traded one of their starters, and he wasn’t the worst (I nominate Jason Marquis) it doesn’t have as big an impact. Gaudin is a nice inclusion, but then again I really don’t like Harden’s odds to stay healthy all year. Don’t get me wrong—I really like the Harden trade for the Cubs, but I think Milwaukee did narrow the gap a tad.

If Milwaukee cleans up on the Cubs in their 10 remaining games (7 in Miller Park), they should win the division.

It’s a damn shame for St. Louis. They have been one of my favorite baseball stories of the year. They were supposed to be bad, and all year long people have been predicting their imminent faltering, but they’ve hung tough all year long—and as I write this sentence are still in second place. This made their task much more difficult.

Dave Studeman: Good points all. My only additional comment: if the Cubs make the postseason and Harden is healthy, then this has a big impact on their World Series chances. When healthy, Harden is a dominant pitcher, arguably the most dominant pitcher in the game. Imagine what a top three of Harden, Zambrano and Dempster would do in a short series.

Mike Fast: If he was going to trade Harden at all, Beane had to trade him when he was looking healthy for a while. If he traded him when he was injured or just a few starts off the DL, people would remember how often he gets injured and that would dramatically reduce his trade value. By doing so now he takes the risk that this is the one time that Harden will actually figure out how to stay healthy enough to contribute on a fairly regular basis going forward. On the other hand, he’s done exactly what everybody was saying he should do back in April when Harden was hurt: Let Harden come back for long enough to establish himself as “healthy” and then trade him when his value was highest. Nobody has a crystal ball to see how Harden will do in the future, but it’s interesting to see how much the common opinion on his value has changed in the span of just two months.

Lisa Gray: Okay, Harden is fragile—I grant you that, and he might not last for even a few games. I agree that is a gamble.

But why Gaudin as a throw-in? And it sure doesn’t look to me like they got anything of any real value for Gaudin—they were all guys the Cubs didn’t want anyhow.

Josh Kalk: I agree I just don’t understand the Gaudin addition. Fine this was all you could get for Harden but why trade Gaudin? He very well could be a better pitcher than Gallagher when all is said and done. And he is going to be cheap cheap cheap for several more years. If the deal was Harden for Murton and another player or two I would be fine with it from the A’s perspecive but this doesn’t make sense to me.

Craig Brown: Like Josh said, the Sabathia deal was more of a “key” deal meaning the Brewers in their chase for the Wild Card (or possibly division title) really needed to add a quality starter. Adding Harden to the Cubs obviously doesn’t hurt, but in their position as the leaders and with their roster, this trade doesn’t really positively impact their chances to make the post season.

I kind of like how both sides made out in the Harden deal. Gaudin gives the Cubs some flexibility in that he can pitch in the rotation like he did earlier this year and all of last season, or in relief. And by getting three players who can step into the lineup right away, I don’t think Beane has punted on the season. There is some value to be found in the players the A’s got in return. While I think the A’s were always a long shot to get into the post-season, this move doesn’t weaken the team to the point where they are in a clear “rebuild” mode. They’re still a long shot—probably just as much today as they were before the deal.

So then this is about the future. Beane traded a front line starter (when healthy) for some guys who aren’t All-Stars, but they can certainly be the kind of role players a successful team needs. To be able to do that without overpaying on the free agent market is key for a team like Oakland. Not that Beane ever overpays on the free agent market. It’s just the kind of deal we’ve come to expect.

On the question on whether this shifts the balance of power away from the AL: These deals effect the balance no more than the Santana trade did. That is to say not at all.

Chris Jaffe: From the A’s perspective, I get the sense Harden’s last start scared the bejesus out of Beane.

Others have noted that Beane wanted to ship Harden out due to his health concerns. Trade high on him by showing the world how good he can be when he has an extended healthy stretch. Well, in a way that’s what happened. I’m sure that’s the best offer anyone has made Beane to date.

The “sell high” theory still doesn’t explain it though. The trade deadline is still a bit away. If Beane really wanted to sell high and this was the best offer he could swing as of now (4 players, none grade-A trading chits, plus Oakland had to throw in another solid reliever) then why, in the name of God, did he not wait a few more starts? An even longer healthy stretch would help his case, and the contenders would be a bit more desperate as Deadline Day nears. In other words, Harden’s trading value may have been its highest in years, but it still could’ve gone higher.

One reason explains why Beane would want to make the trade sooner rather than later—he believed Harden’s value was about to decline. That means Beane feared an imminent injury. Why such a fear? In his last start against the White Sox, he looked pretty bad. 40% of his pitches were balls. He walked four in five innings while allowing 5 hits. I didn’t see it, but I heard his velocity was down.

This doesn’t mean Hardin is on the verge of being done for the year. Beane could just be overreacting to a bad start against the White Sox. It could be a dead arm. It could just be a brief trip to the DL is all he needs. All those are possible—and the last 2, however minor they may sound, would be enough to sink any hopes Beane has for trading them. Then again, this is Hardin we’re talking about.

People have wondered (both here and elsewhere) why toss in Gaudin. This is why. Beane wanted Hardin gone NOW. If he’s injured this year, the A’s have no chance on the division. Beane doesn’t think enough of his arm strength to exersize the option on him for next year.

Beane has shown in his previous deals that he no use for the greater glory of an 85-win season. That’s all Hardin could do for the A’s. Beane wants to get to the post-season, and he made a deal looking for the biggest package that could help out the next pennant contending A’s squad.

For all the moneyball talk about data and information, my own sense is that Beane went with his gut. Harden’s last start could mean doom ahead. Or it could be a blip. As GM Beane should have a little better idea what Harden’s status is, but no one really knows. It’s impossible to tell dead arm from season-ending injury beforehand. Having been burnt by Harden’s unhealth before, he decided this was the most he would ever get for him. So he got it.

Strange as it may sound, I wouldn’t be surprised if the deal was Gaudin for 4 guys in Beane’s mind. Oh sure, Harden’s the big star, but he’s the only one Beane felt was certain to not contribute in any meaningful way. Gaudin by himself couldn’t swing a package this good, but the Big Shiny Talent plus Gaudin could.

Lisa Gray: Do you mean that no other team would have given him ANYTHING for Harden PLUS Gaudin? I understand Beane wanting to try to sell high, sure. But this package?

Chris Jaffe: On a literal level, I have no idea if Beane could’ve gotten more for Harden & Gaudin than this. Clearly, Beane thought it was the most he could get.

If teams really are that skittish on Harden’s arm, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the best Beane could land. Gaudin’s a 25-year-old average pitcher. He was good as a 20-year-old rookie despite lousy peripherals. Since then, he’s only had one genuinely good year in 5.

Gallagher’s probably better than he is.

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