Now, a quarter-century later and one league away, current Brewers GM Doug Melvin has taken the go-for-it-now approach, dealing top prospects for a top-of-the-rotation pitcher.
The cost was substantial, including Milwaukee's top Minor League prospect, outfielder Matt LaPorta. But this was a move worth making for this Milwaukee team.
Sabathia was, after all, the 2007 American League Cy Young Award winner, and if he had a difficult start to this season, he's been more than good enough lately. He's big, he's left-handed, he's healthy and he's a leader.
There isn't much more that could be asked, unless you wanted somebody who was under contract for several more seasons. Sabathia is in the final year of his current deal. There is, of course, the possibility that his stay in Milwaukee will only be a matter of months. But this isn't about some vague, undefined future. This is about the Brewers trying to win in 2008. Good for them.
They were fortunate to find a perfect trading partner in the Indians. The Cleveland club was only one victory away from the World Series last October, but a recent slump sent them all the way to last place in the AL Central. Their chances of resigning Sabathia were nearly non-existent; their need for offense was apparent. They weren't going to win this year, so they turned their focus to the future. A hitter of LaPorta's immense promise makes perfect sense for them.
But for now, the focus is on the other half of the trade. The Brewers came to this moment playing well, winning 29 of their last 44, closing to 3 1/2 games back of the Cubs in the NL Central, in a virtual tie with the Cardinals for second place.
Objectively, there were two concerns about the Milwaukee club before this trade. One is that there were positions in which they still didn't catch the ball very well. This is a better defensive club than it was last year, but it isn't exactly a lockdown defensive operation.
Sabathia can't help there. But the other concern with the Brewers, and probably the larger one, was whether they had enough pitching to reach the playoffs. This club took a large hit when the extremely promising Yovani Gallardo went down with a knee injury. And the $10 million signing of Eric Gagne didn't exactly pan out as planned, either.
But those questions and concerns are answered directly by the acquisition of Sabathia. With Sabathia, with a healthy Ben Sheets, with a rapidly developing Manny Parra, suddenly the Brewers rotation moves from marginal to solid. And the long-deferred dream of reaching the postseason looks a lot closer to a very realistic aspiration.
Melvin will get due credit for aggressively and honestly going after this deal. But there is more credit to be distributed. Principal owner Mark Attanasio has approved the spending that has moved the Brewers' player payroll to close to $90 million, a previously unthinkable amount for this franchise. The financial situation has been greatly aided by a re-energized fan base that is turning out in record numbers, more than 35,000 per game, a remarkable showing in what was once thought to be the franchise epitome of the "small market."
And there is one other critical factor. There were a lot of clubs that wanted to pry Sabathia away from the Indians. Many of those clubs had much more money than the Brewers. But they didn't have more talent stockpiled in the Minors in both quality and quantity than the Brewers. Credit Jack Zduriencik, Brewers special assistant to the general manager for player personnel, and his scouts. They have not only detected and drafted the kind of talent that has made the Brewers dramatically better on the field, but they have drafted so consistently well that the Brewers have enough young talent on hand to make this kind of deal, to land a top-flight Major League pitcher.
This deal, as helpful as it is, is no absolute guarantee of victory. The Cubs have the league's best record, and they may very well respond to this trade with upgrades of their own. The NL Central, with the Cardinals persistent in defying low expectations for them, is the league's toughest division. As good as Sabathia is, the other 24 Brewers are going to have to come through as well, for the October goal to be reached.
But this is the kind of a trade that is made by a team that is close, that sees a way to get from almost-there to there and is willing to take the chance and make the move. This is truly a big, bold deal for the Brewers, and for their fans, many of whom have been waiting 26 years for this sort of thing to happen again.