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Arnold: Brewers “Open To More Conversations” Following Burnes Trade

Last night’s trade of Corbin Burnes took baseball by surprise. With spring training less than two weeks away and the Brewers having just spent $34MM to sign Rhys Hoskins for the next two seasons, the general expectation had been that the team planned to hold onto top stars like Burnes, Willy Adames and Devin Williams, despite the trio inching closer to free agency. (Burnes and Adames are free agents next winter, Williams after the 2025 season.) The Orioles, however, clearly came through with an offer that Milwaukee general manager felt he couldn’t turn down, and in the wake of the trade Arnold acknowledged that he’s “certainly open to more conversations” and “wouldn’t shut any conversations down at this point in the offseason” (link via Adam McCalvy of MLB.com).

That’s a far cry from a declaration that the Brewers are open for business, but both Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic and Mark Feinsand of MLB.com report that Williams, in particular, is also a possibility to move. Rosenthal writes that the Brewers have already “entertained” the possibility of moving the star righty.

Williams, 29, is among the game’s most dominant relievers. Over the past four seasons, he’s logged a 1.75 ERA while striking out a staggering 40.5% of his opponents. Williams’ 11.9% walk rate is well above the league average, but his prodigious strikeout ability, strong 49.5% ground-ball rate and knack for inducing weak contact (85.1 mph average exit velocity, 28.2% hard-hit rate) have all combined to help him mitigate that shaky command.

Excellent as he’s been, Williams isn’t the prototypical power-armed closer we see so often in today’s game. That’s not to suggest he’s a soft-tosser, but he doesn’t brandish the triple-digit heater that’s become increasingly common in modern baseball. Williams averaged 94.2 mph on his fastball in 2023 — an exact match with the league average for relievers — and sits at 94.8 mph dating back to 2020. However, Williams has one of the game’s best pitches, an 80-grade changeup nicknamed the “airbender.” Nearly a quarter of the changeups Williams has thrown in his career (23.1%) have generated a swinging strike. Opponents have batted just .137 and slugged only .199 against the pitch in his career.

Beyond his sheer dominance, Williams is eminently affordable. He agreed to a one-year, $7.25MM deal last month and tacked on a $10.5MM club option for the 2025 campaign, thus avoiding the need for an arbitration hearing this year or next. The value of that club option will likely increase based on some escalators that are baked into the contract. Pitching in 52 games would bump the option value by $200K, while reaching 57 and 62 appearances would add $250K each, plus another $300K for 66 games (which would establish a new career-high, topping 2022’s 65 games). Even if Williams unlocks that full $1MM worth of escalators, an $11.5MM option on a reliever of this caliber would still be a clear bargain.

It should be noted and emphasized that there’s no indication Milwaukee is aggressively shopping Williams or anyone else on the roster. This, however, is the manner in which the Brewers (and Arnold’s former organization, the Rays) have continually operated: maintain an openness on star players as their club control dwindles — particularly those who are likely beyond the organization’s comfort level in terms of asking price on an extension.

Flexibility when it comes to moving short-term players with one to two years of club control is a driving factor in how the Brewers have remained competitive regularly despite perennially ranking in the bottom half of the league in terms of payroll. The trade of Josh Hader at the 2022 deadline netted the Brewers left-hander Robert Gasser (one of their current top pitching prospects) and outfielder Esteury Ruiz, who was subsequently flipped for William Contreras, who won a Silver Slugger as Milwaukee’s starting catcher last season. Hader himself came to Milwaukee alongside Adrian Houser in a trade sending Carlos Gomez to Houston. Right-hander Freddy Peralta, now the Brewers’ top starter, was acquired as a 19-year-old in a trade sending first baseman Adam Lind to Seattle. The list goes on.

Any trade involving Williams will surely require a steep asking price — arguably a comparable or even greater return than Burnes commanded, given his extra year of club control and more affordable contract status. And Williams, like Burnes, figures to be a qualifying offer candidate once he’s able to reach free agency, meaning a new team would know that so long as he remains healthy, there’ll be some draft pick compensation to help recoup the value surrendered in order to acquire him in the first place.

It stands to reason that with Burnes out the door and at least a willingness to listen on Williams, the Brewers have similar thoughts on Adames. The 28-year-old broke out almost immediately after being traded from Tampa Bay to Milwaukee in 2021, when the Brewers sent righties Drew Rasmussen and J.P. Feyereisen to the Rays in exchange for Adames and righty Trevor Richards.

In two and a half seasons as a Brewer, Adames has slashed .242/.319/.454 with 75 homers, 86 doubles and a pair of triples in 1668 plate appearances — all while playing strong defense at a premium position. He’s walked at a 10% clip against a 26% strikeout rate and established himself as a power threat who can hit anywhere in the order, evidenced by 2022’s 31-homer showing. Adames has turned in 17 Defensive Runs Saved and 26 Outs Above Average in the past two seasons alone. He’ll earn a reasonable $12.25MM in 2024 before becoming a free agent ahead of his age-29 season.

As with Burnes, Adames will be a slam-dunk qualifying offer candidate next season. He’s extremely likely to receive and reject a QO, and he’d surely sign a contract worth more than $50MM in total with his next team. That’d give Milwaukee a compensatory pick at the end of the first round of the 2025 draft. Any trade offers would need to eclipse that value — and likely by a strong margin.

That said, the acquisition of Joey Ortiz in the Burnes trade makes it easier for the Brewers to listen to offers. Ortiz himself is a shortstop — and an MLB-ready one at that. He struggled in a tiny sample during last year’s MLB debut (34 plate appearances, .212/.206/.242) but is an accomplished upper-minors hitter who’s considered a good defender at shortstop. The 25-year-old Ortiz spent the bulk of the 2023 season in Triple-A Norfolk, where he slashed .321/.378/.507. That marked his second stint in Norfolk, as he also finished out the 2022 season there and hit well in a sample of 115 plate appearances. Overall, in 504 trips to the plate at Triple-A, Ortiz is a .327/.383/.521 hitter with 13 homers, 37 doubles, six triples and 17 steals.

Of course, as a plus defender at shortstop, Ortiz is more than capable of breaking into the big leagues as an everyday second baseman or third baseman. He and Adames can absolutely coexist on Milwaukee’s roster, and Ortiz could easily slide over to shortstop in 2025 if the team hangs onto Adames for the upcoming season. The Brewers surely don’t feel they need to trade Adames, but as Arnold strongly implied, he also won’t be turning anyone away on principle, either.

That willingness to listen could set the stage for another splashy trade or even two between now and Opening Day, but this isn’t an A’s-esque situation where the Brewers will be selling everything that’s not nailed down. Burnes commanded a pair of immediate big leaguers who both have six years of club control remaining. Any trades of Williams, Adames and/or anyone else on the roster would presumably need to afford similar near-term help.

The Brewers’ recent signing of Hoskins and focus on MLB-ready talent even in trading away their ace highlights the fact that this isn’t a team punting on 2024. Rather, they’re trying to thread the needle of remaining competitive on an annual basis without needing to undergo the exact type of teardown that Burnes’ new team underwent for a half decade prior to emerging as a powerhouse in the AL East. Teams will undoubtedly check back in on Williams, Adames and others in the wake of the Burnes blockbuster, but further trades aren’t necessarily a given.

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