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CLEVELAND -- While the Indians might hold the dubious distinction of being the only club in history to trade consecutive Cy Young Award winners, they can at least take newfound comfort in knowing they are no longer the most recent
American League Central club to trade a Cy Young winner.
Hey, it's the little things in life.
But the Zack Greinke trade made by the Royals last month does not mean the Tribe is totally in the clear. Fans here are still waiting for some substantive proof that the Indians received reasonable returns for CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee in 2008 and '09, respectively.
Nationally, the consensus seems to be that the Indians came out of those blockbuster deals virtually empty-handed. In one sense, that's a cynical, short-sighted point of view, given that one of the principal players acquired in the Lee deal, Jason Knapp, is just 20 years old and slated for Class A in 2011, while Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley, Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald and Lou Marson have just 471 combined games of Major League experience between them.
In another sense, the skepticism is somewhat justified, particularly in the case of the Sabathia trade, made 30 months ago.
The now-famed 2002 Bartolo Colon deal began to bear fruit in 2004, when Lee won 14 games and Grady Sizemore made his eye-opening debut. It was in '05 when both of those players firmly entrenched themselves into the Indians' definition of "core." Both guys were in Double-A at the time of the deal -- as was the case with LaPorta and Brantley at the time of the Sabathia trade -- so, strictly from a timeline standpoint, it's not all that unreasonable to suggest that 2011, three years removed from the trade, is a time when LaPorta and Brantley ought to prove their long-term value.
LaPorta, at present, is the bigger concern of the two, by virtue of the fact that he's had more than 500 at-bats in the bigs and has struggled to make them meaningful.
The October 2009 hip and turf toe surgeries that hindered LaPorta's offseason conditioning program no doubt had an effect on his endurance and, therefore, his performance last year, which is why Tribe manager Manny Acta gave him a "mulligan" for the season. (The recovery from surgery is also why LaPorta's frame took on some added beef last winter, prompting White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, while struggling to remember LaPorta's name, to refer to him as "the fat guy.")
Such excuses expire in 2011. For all his flashes of potent pop and all his defensive strides at first base, LaPorta -- 26 years old on Saturday -- has to prove what all natural sluggers ultimately have to prove at this level -- that he has the necessary baseball intelligence to adjust his swing and approach and understand what the opposing pitcher is doing against him.
If LaPorta shows that ability with any consistency this year, then the Indians have plugged in a big bat at a prominent spot on the field and in the lineup. If not? The rebuilding plan takes a big hit.
Brantley, 23, has offered a little more optimism in his first 100 games at this level. He certainly seemed to learn from a 2010 season in which the Indians masterfully managed his service time and challenged him at the Triple-A level. He hit .292 in the season's final two months and continued to prove himself as a contact hitter. But he needs to draw more walks (he drew 22 in 325 plate appearances last year) and he definitely needs to develop more power (89 of his 108 hits in the Majors have been singles) if he's not going to be known, simply, as a speedy guy who plays strong D. With Brantley, though, there is a lot to like at first glance.
We might get a look at another Sabathia trade acquisition this year, in the form of Rob Bryson, who recovered from shoulder issues to post a combined 2.53 ERA, .165 opponents' average and 80 strikeouts in 53 1/3 innings at the Class A, Class A Advanced and Double-A levels last year. Obviously, the CC trade will ultimately be judged by the performances of LaPorta and Brantley, but netting a quality relief arm out of the deal would be good for the soul.
To be fair, it's a little more premature to judge the Lee trade, given that Knapp missed most of last season due to shoulder surgery (certainly not the best of PR developments in the immediate aftermath of that swap). I'm not even going to delve into Knapp's numbers upon his return because, again, he was 20 years old and pitching in the Midwest League.
But as is the case with the CC deal, we'll know a lot more about the Lee trade after 2011, when we get a full-season look at Carrasco in the rotation and we have more definitive answers on whether Donald is a full-time second baseman and Lou Marson, playing in a backup role behind the dish, can hit in the bigs.
Carrasco is the most important measuring stick, and if he can limit the long ball (particularly because he tends to have his share of traffic on the basepaths) he appears to be a guy you can slot into the front end of your rotation. His September performance, in which he went 2-2 with a 3.83 ERA in seven starts and struck out 38 in 44 2/3 innings, was a nice first step.
While the CC and Lee trades obviously get the ink, admittedly it's sometimes the less-magnified moves (Casey Blake for Carlos Santana, anyone?) that have the grander impact on a club. The Twins proved that you can whiff on a trade involving your Cy Young winner (Johan Santana) and still put together a competitive club.
But these trades were defining moments in the recent history of the Indians. The CC swap hinted at a rebuild, and the Lee trade confirmed it.
One problem for the Indians is that a rebuild that began in what was oft-labeled (by yours truly and others) a "winnable" division continues in a climate in which the ante has been raised significantly. The Twins' new ballpark has made them a big-market club, the Tigers have developed one of the strongest rotations in the league, the White Sox have had a surprisingly aggressive offseason and aren't going anywhere, and even the lowly Royals have developed enough depth in their farm system to make contention in 2012 or '13 -- dare I say -- realistic.
So the Indians have to hope they got it right, now more than ever. And 2011 would be a wonderful time for them to start seeing meaningful returns on two of the most high-profile trades in club history.