CC Sabathia for Michael Brantley: Good Trade?

Jared Wickerham

Can we say yet whether or not the 2008 trade that sent CC Sabathia to Milwaukee has worked out well for the Tribe, or is it too soon? How you judge that deal must largely depend on how you view Michael Brantley, and the book on him is far from finished.

In more than one comment thread this week there has been some discussion of whether or not the CC Sabathia trade has worked out well for the Indians (click here and here then do a Ctrl + F search for "Sabathia" if you didn’t already see the back-and-forth and are curious). On the one hand, Matt LaPorta can be considered a bust and the total return Cleveland got has been far less valuable than Sabathia over the last 4.5 seasons. On the other hand, the Indians weren’t going anywhere that year, Sabathia was walking at season’s end, and Michael Brantley has been a solid contributor over the last two years.

Did the Indians get someone of Sabathia’s caliber back? No. I don’t think that’s a fair way to assess the trade though. Sure, that sort of deal does happen occasionally, but expecting a trade to clear that bar is like saying a player doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame because he wasn’t as good as Willie Mays. That can’t be the standard. The Indians would have received a compensation pick if they’d held onto Sabathia until the season’s end and he’d then left via free agency. I don’t think it’s enough to say Brantley has done more than most players drafted at that compensation level do and call the trade a win either.

One way to make sense of whether the trade was a good move or not would be to look at all the offers the Indians had for Sabathia, see how each return has developed since then, and weigh what the Tribe actually received against the others. Did they choose the right offer? We have no way of knowing what other offers were out there though. Another approach would be to find every example of a star in the last year of their contract being dealt and see how Cleveland’s return. I’d be interested to see the results of such an endeavor and believe it would probably be the most fair assessment method.

In the end, I think it’s just too early to say. Over the last two years (in which he was 24 and 25 years old) Brantley developed into a solid player, not an All-Star, but a worthy starter. He hasn't done enough to justify feeling great about the trade, but the Indians acquired many years of team control over him (and LaPorta, Zach Jackson, and Rob Bryson), and that control continues for another four seasons. I thought I’d try and get some sense of what might Michael Brantley might do over those years.

I used B-R’s Play Index to find every outfielder in modern history (from 1901 on) with at least 1,000 PA over his age 24 and 25 seasons. I culled the list down to those whose OPS+ was within 10 points of Brantley’s (106) and whose ISO was within .20 points of Brantley’s (.116). I know OPS+ and ISO don’t give a complete sense of each player’s hitting, to say nothing of fielding and base running, but I think they allow for a reasonable comparison pool. I’ve also included bWAR, so you can get a greater sense of each player’s contributions. I looked at the same metrics for each player at age 26 AND their combined production from 26 to 29 (since that’s the range for which the Indians still control Brantley):

Age 24-25

Age 26

Age 26-29

Player

WAR

OPS+

ISO

WAR

OPS+

ISO

WAR

OPS+

ISO

Curt Flood

9.7

101

.110

4.5

100

.068

16.5

105

.089

Jim Landis

8.2

112

.132

2.9

105

.136

9.5

104

.154

Roberto Kelly

8.0

113

.126

2.7

114

.177

6.5

107

.141

Marquis Grissom

7.8

101

.125

5.1

107

.140

15.4

101

.146

Jim Piersall

6.6

99

.128

4.6

101

.156

9.9

91

.136

Roberto Clemente

6.1

108

.125

6.0

150

.208

21.5

137

.161

Willie McGee

6.0

96

.096

7.9

147

.150

14.0

108

.124

Warren Cromartie

5.9

102

.122

1.3

116

.142

7.7

113

.131

Shannon Stewart

5.1

104

.121

4.8

118

.199

14.8

115

.159

Barney McCosky

5.0

111

.111

DNP

DNP

DNP

2.5

128

.091

Garry Maddox

4.6

101

.122

6.2

133

.126

19.5

108

.137

Michael Brantley

4.5

106

.116

???

???

???

???

???

???

Jigger Statz

4.5

102

.099

0.3

80

.075

0.9

79

.083

Duffy Lewis

4.2

111

.112

2.6

127

.120

10.2

117

.093

Jo-Jo Moore

4.2

112

.105

3.1

110

.134

9.2

111

.125

Mike Menosky

4.1

113

.103

1.7

98

.078

1.8

89

.082

Harry Rice

3.8

104

.126

1.7

104

.124

5.2

103

.122

Tommy Harper

3.7

96

.112

1.6

78

.121

9.5

109

.148

Harry Hooper

3.6

101

.098

3.1

110

.106

12.7

111

.092

Von Hayes

3.6

114

.136

2.7

102

.135

12.7

121

.163

Jimmy Welsh

3.4

106

.130

0.4

86

.130

0.6

79

.121

Casey Stengel

3.2

111

.131

2.5

116

.118

7.0

121

.125

Bill Tuttle

3.2

103

.120

-1.5

73

.104

0.3

87

.106

Bill Hinchman

3.1

104

.099

1.6

118

.114

1.6

118

.114

Luis Olmo

2.2

107

.130

DNP

DNP

DNP

-0.2

91

.085

Dion James

2.2

115

.130

1.0

107

.080

1.5

105

.090

Willie Montanez

0.3

97

.132

0.4

107

.106

0.9

108

.122

You’re welcome to find your favorite comparison (Roberto Clemente is fun, but unreasonable). I’m fond of Shannon Stewart as someone whose numbers are particularly close to Brantley’s (albeit with a bit better speed) and whose continued progression seems with reasonable and satisfying a target for Brantley. I think it’s also worth looking at whether or not these players, looked at as a whole) got any better than they already were:

At age 26, sixteen of the players saw their OPS+ rise or remain mostly unchanged, eight saw it rise substantially (10+ points). During the age 26 to 29 years, seventeen of them saw their OPS+ rise or remain mostly unchanged, ten saw it rise substantially. At age 26, seventeen of the players saw their ISO rise or remain mostly unchanged, seven saw it rise substantially (.20+ points). During the age 26 to 29 years, sixteen of them saw their ISO rise or remain mostly unchanged, eight saw it rise substantially.

So, close to one-third of them saw their hitting decline, one-third saw it stay about the same or improved a little bit, and one-third got a lot better. It looks the same when you examine bWAR. Roughly one-third of them put up a total less than 5 over those four seasons, one-third put up a total in the 5 to 10 range, and one-third put up a total above 12. Maybe going to all this trouble to conclude that there are roughly equal chances of Brantley flaming out, Brantley continuing to be what he was in 2012, and Brantley taking another step forward may seem like a waste. I happen to find it interesting how evenly the similar players split into those three categories.

In my mind, if Brantley were to fall off, the Sabathia trade would seem like a failure. If he were to take another big step forward and have a similar late-20s (in terms of overall value) to Shannon Stewart or Curt Flood, I’d consider the deal a clear success, a strong return for three months of a great pitcher. And if Brantley splits the difference and matches the median production of those 26 players (a bWAR of 2.6 in 2013 and 8.5 for 2013-2016), I’d be satisfied.

We’ll have to wait and see.

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