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The Brett Lawrie for Shaun Marcum Trade

ESPN's top baseball stories today only mentioned the Jason Werth deal and a Mark Reynolds trade to the Orioles. No one seems to be noticing that the Brewers and Blue Jays traded #1 prospect for #1 starter, which is a significant and rare type of trade. The impact on the Brewers is going to be tremendous.

Marcum is a very good pitcher. I find it a little funny that he doesn't meet the 6 foot 2, hard-throwing prototype that the organization set for themselves back at the "pitching summit" but I never really bought the idea of a prototype anyways. If you're following the news it's likely you've seen plenty about his stuff already, but he's not a hard thrower, that's for sure. Don't mistake him for a "contact pitcher" though, because he's not. Power stuff is not always good stuff.

Marcum started 14 games in 2006, 25 in 2007, and 25 in 2008. He improved each season, dropping his FIP from about 5.4 to 4.9 to 4.45. This improvement was directly mirrored in his tERA numbers. He was aided by a very low BABIP in 2008 to finish with a 3.39 ERA, allowing him to become "established" as a solid starting pitcher, I'm sure many analysts said it was his breakout year. Unfortunately, he underwent Tommy John surgery and missed the entire 2009 season.

Marcum was a different pitcher upon his return in 2010. He set a career high in innings pitched with 195, and his 3.64 ERA was matched by an equally low FIP, also a career low. On an impressive, young Blue Jays staff, Marcum was the opening day starter and the staff leader in most pitching categories. His biggest change before and after the injury was more variation on his fastball. He seemed to tweak his cutter, throwing it harder and getting its classification changed from "slider" to "cutter" by the Pitch f/x algorithm.

Marcum throws a 2 or 4-seam fastball about 50% of the time, which is a very low rate and indicative of his reliance on his offspeed stuff. He really is only throwing the straight fastball to keep the other pitchers effective. Beyond the two fastballs, his next most useful pitch is his changeup. It's one of the most effective in the game by any measure. It averages about 7 mph slower than the fastball, and he has thrown it more and more with each season in the majors. In addition to the aforementioned cutter, Marcum also throws a 75 mph curveball about 11% of the time. It's another effective weapon in the arsenal.

Marcum is able to get plenty of strikeouts with this selection of pitches. His swinging strike percentage has been around 10%, which is solidly above average, and he's done that in his entire time in the majors. Marcum can get guys out, there is no real question that he is not a soft-tossing finesse "contact" guy. He has a track record.

It's also worth mentioning that Marcum has compiled these numbers in the toughest division in the Major Leagues. There's an automatic gain expected from transferring to the NL, and especially coming from the AL East.

Some people have stated concern about Marcum's injury history, but Tommy John surgery is the only real setback he's dealt with in his career, and it's relatively routine these days. Every pitcher is an injury risk. Every pitcher. Past Tommy John surgery does not really correspond with a higher risk of any other injury down the road. So while there's certainly an injury risk, there's nothing to indicate that Marcum's any more of an injury risk than any other pitcher the Brewers could have acquired.

I have yet to even touch on what the Brewers gave up, but there's no question it's a significant amount. I've been on Brett Lawrie's bandwagon since he was drafted, and he's a talented hitter who put up a great year as a 20-year old in AA. But if anyone was expendable, it may have been him. I always felt that Lawrie would hold his own as a hitter even if moved down the defensive spectrum-- as a third basemen or corner outfielder, he would likely be an above-average offensive producer down the road. The problem is that right now, the Brewers have 5 players who fit that description (and yes I'm counting Mat Gamel). Lawrie's value to the Brewers was tied in his ability to stick at second base-- and the Brewers' willingness to trade him, I think, speaks about their confidence that he could do so. I think it also speaks about their confidence to get a deal done with Rickie Weeks, and possibly says something about how highly they think of Scooter Gennet.

Of course, having a valuable player somewhat blocked at a few different positions is a bad reason to trade him. Considering the alternatives, however, a pitcher as good as Marcum came available and the Brewers had to give up fair value to acquire him. I'd much rather send away a player like Lawrie, who may be blocked and may have more value to the Jays than to the Brewers, than just about anything else of equivalent value in the system (like pitchers, and hitters who are also strong on defense). Lawrie was expendable and Melvin used him to solve a major weakness.

The starting rotation has yet to take shape, but there's no question that Gallardo and Marcum are a formidable 1-2, and the rotation was strengthened tremendously without even touching the current team, and using a player who might have been traded after the season anyways. The offense is still one of the best in the league and now the pitching staff is resembling something close to or even better than average.

The main argument I've seen against this trade goes something along the lines of disliking it because the Brewers are sacrificing their future to make a short-term run for the playoffs, and that if it doesn't work out they will be doomed to the NL Central cellar for years to come. My rebuttal comes in this form:

  • The Brewers didn't sacrifice farm system depth. They took one guy off the top. In many ways, I like dealing Lawrie-- another power hitting high draft pick with defensive issues-- more than I would like dealing a bigger package of slightly lower prospects, like Lorenzo Cain and 2 pitchers. If we assume Lawrie's not going to stick at second, we already have a very similar guy already in Gamel.
  • I don't see why the next two years are not looked at as potential years of contention. The offensive core and Gallardo is under contract for this season, and the only significant players with their contracts up in 2012 will be Rickie Weeks and Prince Fielder. Both are major players but I feel that Weeks can be retained, and Fielder can be replaced. Mat Gamel will almost certainly be working hard at first base this season.
  • Worst-case scenario is just a bit of player turnover. If this team manages to tank and the management changes course, Marcum could easily be flipped for a good prospect or 3 at the trade deadline or the end of the year.

The more I think about this deal, the more I like it. The Brewers acquired a good pitcher who is easily #2 caliber, if not a borderline #1, and didn't hurt the team too badly to do it. And they didn't just rent him for a season. This move moved me from skeptical about the chances to compete in the central next year to optimistic. I say that Doug Melvin did good work here, and though people are free to disagree, I think this one's going to work out well for the Crew.