CC Sabathia is expected to call it a career after the 2019 season. Sabathia is remembered around Wisconsin for his heroics after being rented from the Cleveland Indians in July 2008. The cost for a Milwaukee Brewers postseason berth, their first in 26 years, was steep. The aftereffects of that trade could be felt long after Sabathia fulfilled his obligation to the Brewers.
Let’s start by saying this much: The Brewers needed to get CC Sabathia.
After Ben Sheets, the Brewers starting rotation left a lot to be desired. Dave Bush never got it together. Jeff Suppan was a transparently indefensible free agent acquisition after the St. Louis Cardinals won their World Series championship in 2006. Manny Parra was a highly-touted prospect who never panned out. Chris Capuano, who emerged in 2006 and ’07 with a back-door cutter that destroyed hitters, was on the shelf with Tommy John after being allowed to throw with obvious physical discomfort for too long.
And we can’t forget that the team, Sabathia notwithstanding, still nearly played their way out of the October conversation, precipitating Ned Yost‘s firing and needing help from the New York Mets on the final day of the regular season to gain entry to the postseason. The Mets Met’d, sending Brewers fans at Miller Park–almost all of whom stayed after the local game ended to watch the Mets falter on the scoreboard–into a frenzy.
Brewers fans celebrate merely appearing in October in the way other fans in other cities celebrate championships. This is learned behavior after a generation of futility.
So, seeing this up close, CC Sabathia had a choice: stay for less money and hope for the best, or go get paid and position himself for bigger and better things. To no one’s surprise, Sabathia became a Yankee and cemented a Hall of Fame-grade resume in the Bronx.
Yankees fans need to understand, though, that Sabathia’s story as a good pitcher who became great and then a Yankee legend starts in the Menomonee River Valley under the arching retractable roof at Miller Park. And Brewers fans need to understand that this was neither the first nor last time general manager Doug Melvin spent too much on the present to retain a sustainable future.
We remember Sabathia as a power pitcher, mowing down batters with ease, but the 251 strikeouts he amassed in his 2008 season split between Cleveland and Milwaukee was by far his career high. What he did in 2008 was an outlier to the rest of a perfectly-respectable career. His demeanor helped stabilize a Brewers clubhouse in unfamiliar territory.
And Doug Melvin acquired two-plus months of Sabathia for Matt LaPorta, Rob Bryson, Zach Jackson and a player to be named later. That doesn’t sound like much, except LaPorta was the Brewers’ top prospect at the time, and Jackson was well-regarded as a pitching prospect acquired for fan-favorite Lyle Overbay in 2005 in order to make way for Prince Fielder. The player to be named later, as noted by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel digital sports reporter JR Radcliffe, was either Taylor Green, one of the top prospects in the system at the time, or Michael Brantley, who was essentially the second-best behind LaPorta.
Unless you’ve been deep diving the Brewers system for years, you haven’t heard of Green. If you’ve followed baseball, you’ve certainly heard of Brantley. And, after having dealt another future star two years prior in Nelson Cruz along with Carlos Lee, Melvin gave away an All-Star outfield that easily could have kept the Brewers in contention beyond 2008 and their exciting run in 2011.
Does the deal get done without Brantley? Maybe, maybe not; players named later can have value, but are typically not valuable. But Melvin’s penchant for spending too much and mortgaging the farm is no more evident than in each of his big acquisitions: Lee, Sabathia, Zack Greinke and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Melvin in 2008 was viewed around the league as a mark. Lee, Sabathia and Greinke amassed a respectable 11.5 bWAR as Brewers, letting alone the varied impact from exports Brantley, Cruz and 2005 White Sox hero Scott Podsednik. Those the Brewers got in return amassed 5.1, 5.5 of which came from Jean Segura.
While Brewers fans fondly remember the Summer of Sabathia, we cannot forget that, in the process, Melvin destabilized a farm system that would see its architect, Jack Zduriencik, leave for Seattle’s vacant GM role after that season. Zduriencik was replaced by Reid Nichols and Bruce Seid, both of whom underwhelmed in their drafting and development, leading to Melvin blowing the club up and announcing his resignation in 2015. The team’s collapse did not happen in a vacuum, or in an infamous collapse the year prior. If one wants to see where the Brewers’ later failure begins, it begins by sending out All-Stars over the course of seasons and getting replacement and sub-replacement level players in return.
So, yes, the Brewers needed Sabathia, and it was a great run with no shortage of theatrics. Sabathia largely delivered the goods: an 11-2 record, a 1.65 ERA (though with a 2.44 FIP, his dominance was more a result of good pitching coupled with stout defense), 128 Ks in 130 IP and closing out the regular season on short rest in his last three September starts. And then there was that singular October performance when it became clear the magic ran out.
It was great while it lasted, but given the Brewers’ inability to sustain success after that, one can’t help but wonder if an objective look at the history proves Sabathia the hero or Doug Melvin the goat in the lower-case, unflattering sense. Ultimately, the answer is a bit of both, and Sabathia’s tenure in Milwaukee is at best a mixed bag.
After all, if you can’t make it good, make it memorable. En route to a complete career worthy of serious Cooperstown consideration, Sabathia’s stint as a Brewer underscores the point.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.