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Observing the Sabathia

Inside baseball's trading frenzy and the makings of a great pennant race.

By 7.11.08

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Baseball is a great game to watch. But sometimes, it can be more fun to follow the game behind the game -- 30 General Managers all trying to outwit each other. In the month or so leading up to the annual July 31 trading deadline, those wits are on full display as GMs unleash a flurry of transactions.

Teams will be buying and selling, trying to win now, trying to win later, trimming payroll, boosting payroll, putting out feelers, and calling bluffs, all while trying to get more out of their deals than the other guy.

Most seasons have at least one big-name trade involving a star player. This year we have already had two. All this behind-the-scenes action is setting up an epic pennant race in the NL Central. The Cubs, Brewers, and the surprising Cardinals are running neck-and-neck-and neck.

The Brewers fired first. On Monday they acquired pitcher CC Sabathia from the Cleveland Indians in exchange for four of their vaunted farm system's best prospects.

Sabathia is a specimen. A hulking 6'7" and 290 pounds, he throws a mid-90s fastball, a filthy slider, and an almost unhittable changeup. He won the AL Cy Young award last year, and led his team to within one win of the World Series.

On the day of Sabathia's first start as a Brewer, the archrival Cubs retaliated. They announced a trade for Oakland A's ace Rich Harden. The Cubs are downplaying the deal's suspicious timing, though. "This isn't a reaction to anything," said Cubs executive Gary Hughes.

Sure. And I'm the Pope.

WAS THE HARDEN deal too rash? Oakland A's GM Billy Beane is famous for consistently getting the better end of trades. Harden is tough to resist, though. He is simply electric on the mound, featuring a 97 mph fastball. He is just the kind of pitcher the Cubs need to hold off Sabathia and the Brewers.

Harden does have one weakness, though -- injuries. He has made six trips to the DL in four seasons. Only once has he made more than 22 starts in a season. In part to save his arm, Harden rarely tops 100 pitches in his starts. That means extra work for the already beleaguered Cubs bullpen.

Beane did sweeten the deal by throwing in reliever Chad Gaudin, but he extracted three major league players and a promising catching prospect from the Cubs. The Harden deal is classic high-risk, high-reward, right in line with Cubs GM Jim Hendry's aggressive style.

His team boasts a $118 million payroll, almost 50% more than the Brewers' opening day dole. There are over $300 million worth of free agent contracts on their roster. Some of Hendry's big signings have been busts. But the sheer amount of talent on the Cubs roster guarantees their competitiveness.

The small-market Brewers are different. They can't spend freely like the Cubs, so they are more cautious in the trade market. Their business model is to build through the draft and to hoard young, cheap talent. Their strategy is finally paying off; last year was the team's first winning season since 1992.

THE TROUBLE IS that ace pitcher Ben Sheets is due to leave in free agency after the season. A small market team, the Brewers simply can't afford his asking price. Their window of opportunity for overtaking the Cubs and making the playoffs could be closing. Hence the Sabathia swap.

Some pundits decried the Brewers selling out their farm system for a player who only pitches every fifth day, and will leave the team in three months. But the Brewers will get two compensatory draft picks when Sabathia moves to New York or Los Angeles. When Sheets bids adieu, the Brewers get two more draft picks. The team can replenish itself quickly.

Brewers GM Doug Melvin is banking that improving the team's playoff chances are worth the temporary setback to the farm system. "We're going for it," he said.

The Brewers and Cubs have quietly become one of baseball's fiercest rivalries. Harden and Sabathia will only up the ante. Melvin and Hendry's behind-the-scenes jostling could give fans one of the most exciting pennant races in years.

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About the Author

Ryan Young is Fellow in Regulatory Studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.