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The Orioles Did Something, and Boy, Is Adding Corbin Burnes a Monumental Something

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

It just didn’t make sense. There was no way that the Orioles were really planning on heading into the 2024 season with so little top-end pitching. I’m not saying Kyle Bradish, Grayson Rodriguez, and company are bad, but they were on the lighter side of potential playoff rotations, and that made very little sense to me given the composition of the rest of the team. It’s not every day that I take a team to task for something they didn’t do, but this one was just too illogical.

It turns out that the Orioles agreed with me on that one. Thursday night, they acquired Corbin Burnes from the Brewers in exchange for DL Hall, Joey Ortiz, and a Competitive Balance Round A pick, as Ken Rosenthal, Jeff Passan, and Mark Feinsand first reported. You know it’s a big trade when all the news-breakers are sharing it.

Wow. That’s the first thing to say about this one. This is exactly the kind of high-leverage move that suits the Orioles as currently constructed, and it’s for the pitcher I would have chosen if I could get anyone feasibly available. Dylan Cease might be an ace. Burnes is one, right now, and he’s a huge addition to an already-excellent team. I’m excited just thinking about it.

As is normal for deals that involve multiple high-profile young players, Eric Longenhagen will have a separate article focusing on the return to the Brewers. For the purposes of this trade, I’m going to ballpark them as 1.5 top 100 prospects (Hall was always around the fringes of top prospect discussion, but never quite hit the big time before graduating, and he’s still prospect-y enough in my head despite that graduation). The Comp Balance A pick will fall just after the first round, where a draft pick is still hugely valuable; you can think of it as another solid prospect, per Craig Edwards’s helpful research.

The Orioles have operated in one consistent direction in their trades in recent years. They don’t lose the total long-term production side of the trade, ever. They swap low-likelihood prospects for rentals, or try to trade rentals of their own. It’s all been part of a grand design on their part: build the team up to a finely honed competitive edge centered around Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson.

That was an incredible plan, and they executed it better than anyone could have expected. That was great news, and it was also a new challenge for a front office group that hung its hat on development and building for tomorrow. Now the Orioles aren’t a rebuilding project; they’re a contender. This year’s production is important in a way it simply wasn’t four years ago.

Trading for Burnes is a perfect encapsulation of that view. Burnes is going to be one of the best players on the Orioles, because he’s one of the best players in baseball. Per our projections, he’s the fifth-best pitcher in the game right now. This isn’t a high-risk/high-reward pitching trade, getting a guy and hoping to make him better. It’s the closest thing you can get to a one-year sure thing when it comes to pitchers, who are inherently risky.

That’s right: one year. Burnes will reach free agency after this year, and the bidding for his services will be fierce. He’s entering his age-29 season, and over the past three years, he’s in the top five for innings pitched, strikeouts, WAR, RA9-WAR, FIP, SIERA – pretty much everything except ERA, where he’s seventh. The point is, he’s a rental, and he’s going to sign a huge deal after this season.

That means that from a pure surplus value perspective – the savings a player provides a team relative to what it would cost to pay a free agent to do the same thing – the Orioles “lost” this trade. But that’s a dumb way of thinking about things. It doesn’t really say much about how trades and teams actually work. Still, it’s worth noting that the O’s haven’t done this kind of deal at all before now. They’ve always played the long game and racked up future surplus value in their dealings.

The truth is, though, the Orioles didn’t give up a lot for what they’re getting back. That’s no knock on Ortiz or Hall, who are both intriguing young players. Teams like the Orioles and Brewers both rely on a critical mass of players like them to contribute at the major league level while earning league-minimum salaries, followed by at least an arbitration year or two. That’s how you compete at the top of the league without hitting the top of the salary table.

But when you’re at the top of the league, you also need stars. The many-bites-at-the-apple theory of postseason success has merit, but postseason success is a lot more likely when you’re good. We remember plucky upstarts who charge to the World Series precisely because they don’t happen every year. And you just can’t raise your team’s level to that of the best in the game with a bunch of average players. Hence, the very best players are all “worth” more to teams than some dry accounting of dollars per win.

It would be one thing if Ortiz and Hall were the Orioles’ only shot at building a sustainable young core. But they’re not. They’re not surplus by any means, but they’re part of a deep and impressive group, in both the majors and the minors, that’s among the best in the game despite Baltimore having graduating a gaudy array of stars in the past two years. Hall was likely going to end up in the bullpen this year. Ortiz was the third-best shortstop in the system, and with competition coming from below; he wasn’t blocked, but he wasn’t essential either. The O’s system is still churning out more players than the team can credibly find playing time for at the moment, and that’ll likely be the case for at least the next few years. Their major league roster is already crowded and more bats are on the way.

Meanwhile, Burnes is a huge difference maker, guaranteed. He’ll improve our projections for the team by roughly three wins all by himself, a huge swing in a tightly contested AL East. This is one of only five years where the Orioles are guaranteed to have Henderson and Rutschman on the team at once. It’s not the kind of thing you should squander by ignoring present needs, and the Orioles didn’t. Their rotation could use a bit more depth now that Hall, who likely would have been the first man up if someone got hurt, is in Milwaukee. Another starter would be a welcome addition to the 2024 club, but they’ve done a lot to address the top end, which was the weakest link.

On Milwaukee’s side, the math looks a little different. Ortiz, Hall, and a solid draft pick wouldn’t do a ton to change the fact that Baltimore has an excellent crop of young players headed towards the majors. For the Brewers, the same isn’t true, particularly at the positions that Ortiz and Hall play. The Brewers graduated a huge group of outfielders to the majors, but their infield is comparatively unsettled and will get more so when Willy Adames hits free agency. They’re no longer a pitching-dominant team; Brandon Woodruff was already gone, and the various heirs apparent to him and Burnes haven’t panned out yet. Freddy Peralta is great, but the rest of the young core has been plagued with either injuries or inconsistency.

If you agree with the idea that Milwaukee needed to retool, the players they got back for Burnes make sense both for them and in the context of the market. Luis Castillo fetched more when the Mariners traded for him, but he was traded 1.5 years before reaching free agency, and the extra playoff run added to his return. Tyler Glasnow fetched less in trade, but he’s not as good as Burnes, so that makes sense. The deadline trades for Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer fit into the picture as well – more years, but less current production, and similar returns after taking the money exchanged into account. Top starters with a year or so remaining until free agency fetch good but not gamebreaking prospects; that’s just how it goes these days.

It sucks to trade Burnes when you could have had him this year, but let’s be real here: it would just be this year. The Brewers were never likely to agree to an extension, but that went off the table completely after after they took his arbitration case to a hearing last year, a process he called “very eye-opening.” And it’s a lot easier to see the fail cases in Milwaukee than in Baltimore; the Brewers don’t have the same kind of wellspring of talent, and their major league roster isn’t as good right now. Jackson Chourio is awesome, don’t get me wrong, but Baltimore just has so many young talented players, and their offensive veterans are no slouch either.

On the other hand, the Brewers get to play in the NL Central, which works in their favor. I mentioned earlier that the many-bites-at-the-apple theory of postseason baseball is too reductive, but it’s not wrong. It behooves the Brewers to build for sustainable success, especially given that they still have a good chance at the playoffs even this year thanks to playing in a soft division. To sustainably compete like Milwaukee does, you have to develop a lot of your own players, and I think the Brewers are being realistic in assessing that they’re a little light on that front at the moment.

We’re penciling Hall into Milwaukee’s rotation for the moment, which goes to show the kind of help they could use. He wasn’t one of Baltimore’s top five starters, and their pitching staff was hardly their greatest strength. The Brewers need young depth, and this is the best infusion they were likely to get. It hurts not to get Burnes for this year, but Milwaukee’s approach to payroll and roster building means it was going to hurt really badly in 2025 regardless, and I still think they’re neck and neck at the top of the division (in a three-way race, to confuse analogies) as currently constituted. They won’t be as good in the playoffs without Burnes, to be sure, but I think they’re getting enough future payoff in this deal to justify a step back now.

It seems weird to call a trade a win-win when the teams are both currently competitive. Doesn’t one have to be a loser? But I think this was a perfect reallocation of resources. The Orioles were wasting potential by having so many prospects blocked by their already impressive major league team. The Brewers needed prospect quantity and quality. The Orioles added more wins in 2024 with this deal than the Brewers lost because Hall will pitch more (and more important) innings in Milwaukee than he would have in Baltimore.

That’s about as both-sides-happy as it gets in baseball. And as an added benefit, though it’s early to know how this played into the decision, the Orioles are about to be under new ownership. Trading for Burnes will give them a year to decide if they want to start a new, higher-spending regime by adding one of the best players in baseball. If they do, they have that year to attempt to convince him to stay. Two weeks ago, I wouldn’t have mentioned this possibility; that’s not Angelos-era Orioles reality. But it’s a nice tailwind to an already very nice trade on both sides.


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