On the Baseball Tonight Podcast, Buster Olney enjoys starting every installment with a fun fact about each day in baseball history. Today’s fact was one I was already well aware of, one that everyone who knows me will continue to remind me of until I die. Today, July 7th, is the anniversary of the trade that shaped the Indians of the late 2000s, the trade that sent C.C. Sabathia to Milwaukee for Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley, Zach Jackson, and Rob Bryson. It is also the day that I became a Matt LaPorta fan, a fandom that disappointed me every step of the way.
Per usual for teams managed by Eric Wedge, the 2008 Indians started off slowly. With Sabathia in the final year of his contract and all but gone, the front office decided to try and recoup some value for the reigning Cy Young Award winner. At 37-51, then-GM Mark Shapiro decided to start selling off assets and acquire prospects who could help the team win down the road. His new team was twelve games better than his old one.
Just 3.5 games back in the NL Central, the Milwaukee Brewers needed a push to help them make the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Doug Melvin jumped at the opportunity to improve his starting rotation with an ace alongside Ben Sheets, even if it cost him a lot of promising talent in the farm system.
Sabathia, like most of the 2008 Indians, disappointed that season. He was 6-8 with a 3.83 ERA at the time of the trade. The big lefty was reenergized when he arrived in Milwaukee, winning 11 of his 17 starts with seven (!!!) complete games, three shutouts, and an ERA of just 1.65. Though he played less than half of the season for Milwaukee, Sabathia finished fifth in the Cy Young voting and 6th in MVP voting. He also led the Brewers in Wins Above Replacement, even though the rest of his teammates had almost 90 extra games to accumulate their wins.
Rob Bryson was selected by the Brewers in the 31st round of the 2007 draft, advancing to class A as a 20 year old. Injuries to his shoulder and rotator cuff in 2009, along with a broken right foot in 2011, all but derailed his career. Bryson had two promising pitches, but he lacked control throughout his minor league career, a flaw that was exploited in the higher levels of minor league baseball. Last season, Bryson posted a 9.53 ERA between AA Akron and AAA Columbus. After the season, he became a minor league free agent and went unsigned, effectively ending his pro baseball career.
Zach Jackson was a first round pick by the Toronto Blue Jays in 2004. He was traded the following year, alongside Dave Bush and Gabe Gross, to Milwaukee in exchange for Lyle Overbay and Ty Taubenheim. Jackson originally projected as a starter, but his numbers were gruesome at the higher minor league levels. Jackson posted a 6.11 ERA with the Indians and has since bounced around minor league baseball. He is currently pitching in relief in the Nationals minor league system.
Michael Brantley was not originally included in the trade, joining the deal after the 2008 season as the player to be named later. Brantley was a speedy outfielder who made great contact, hitting .319 with 28 stolen bases in AA Huntsville. Dr. Smooth was recently named to his first All-Star team, being recognized as the best all-around hitter on the 2014 Indians.
The Indians chose Brantley out of a pool of players that included Taylor Green, the team’s 2007 minor league player of the year. Green hit .289 with 15 homers and his share of walks for high-A Brevard County in 2008, but he did not get chosen as the PTBNL. Rather, the Indians took the player who was farther along in his development, even if he was considered a “lesser” prospect. Green missed all of 2013 with hip surgery and he has hit .235 between AA and AAA this season. His career Major League batting average is .207.
Don’t worry, I didn’t forget Matt LaPorta. The Brewers first round pick in 2007 was the big name star prospect included in the Sabathia trade. As a middle schooler, I looked up highlight film of the star prospect who hit .279 with a lot of power in AA in 2008. He looked like he would be a star power hitter, especially when you take his AAA numbers into account. Unfortunately, injuries and inconsistency forced LaPorta out of baseball with a big fat “BUST” label on his back. LaPorta is currently out of baseball after playing earlier this season in Mexico.
I believed in Matt LaPorta. In fact, I was arguably his biggest believer, arguing he would turn around his career. I blamed Eric Wedge for never deciding if LaPorta was an outfielder or a first baseman and then playing him in left field at the end of 2008, even though he was injured at the time. I blamed Shapanetti for not calling him up sooner in 2012 and I believed a change in scenery would have helped LaPorta flourish and shed the bust label. By the end of last season, all of my twitter followers knew how I felt about LaPorta and had tried for years to talk some sense into me.
I never gave up on Matt LaPorta. Instead of giving in, I had doubled down on my support. When he struggled at the Major League level in 2009 and 2010, I continued to believe in him. After 2011, I became the unofficial president of the nonexistent Matt LaPorta fan club. In 2012, when I met with the Tribe front office about DiamondView and they’d called LaPorta a bust, I still believed. It took until he was cut by the Baltimore Orioles during Spring Training that I finally called LaPorta a bust. I still held out hope that he would have a fairytale comeback story, but that isn’t happening. In hindsight, I look foolish believing in LaPorta, but he held the hope of Cleveland’s brightest future and I was too stubborn to admit I was wrong.
Six years after the Indians first acquired Matt LaPorta, I am not afraid to admit I was wrong about him. LaPorta was a 4-A player at his best and he never lived up to his potential.
As good as C.C. Sabathia was in the dog days of summer in 2008, he was a rental for the Brewers, who lost him in free agency that winter. The Yankees signed him for 8 years and $182 million, a megadeal that reaped dividends for four seasons. Last season, the Vallejo, CA native posted his worst Major League season to date. This year, Sabathia posted a 5.28 ERA in 8 starts before being placed on the disabled list with a degenerative knee condition. He is unlikely to pitch the rest of this season.
Even though the Brewers got just 17 starts out of Sabathia before he left as a free agent, the trade has not been a disappointment for GM Doug Melvin. The Brewers won 90 games and made the playoffs for the first time in 26 years while just one of the four prospects they gave up has had a real impact at the Major League level. Michael Brantley made his first All-Star team this season, but he has yet to become a top flight player on the same level of Sabathia.
Many Indians fans now refer to this blockbuster as the Michael Brantley trade because of Dr. Smooth’s All-Star emergence. I will now and forever refer to this deal as the Matt LaPorta trade because of how much I believed in him and how silly I look now, six years later.