Just when we were finally starting to give up hope of a blockbuster trade this offseason, the Baltimore Orioles and Milwaukee Brewers delivered a shocker: Per ESPN’s Jeff Passan, Milwaukee is sending Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes to the O’s in exchange for lefty DL Hall, high-end infield prospects Joey Ortiz and the 34th pick in the 2024 MLB Draft. (Unlike other Draft picks, Competitive Balance Draft picks — like Baltimore’s 34th pick this year — can be traded.)
Full trade, sources tell me and @kileymcd :— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) February 2, 2024
Baltimore receives: RHP Corbin Burnes
Milwaukee receives: IF Joey Ortiz, LHP D.L. Hall and the 34th pick in the 2024 draft
Burnes wasn’t quite as dominant last year as he was in 2021 and 2022, but he was still very solid, finishing 10-8 with a 3.39 ERA in 193.2 innings to help the Brewers capture another NL Central title. A fourth-round pick back in 2019, Ortiz has steadily climbed up prospect lists thanks to solid middle-infield defense and great contact skills that propelled him to a .321/.378/.507 slash line in Triple-A in 2023. His brief MLB cameo didn’t go nearly as well (.448 OPS in 34 plate appearances), but that’s obviously a small sample size, and broad base of skills have him ranked as MLB Pipeline’s No. 63 overall prospect. A former top prospect in his own right, Hall’s command issues have prevented him from sticking in a big-league rotation as of yet. But he appeared to find something in a relief role last season, posting a 3.26 ERA with 23 strikeouts in 19.1 innings.
Back at the start of the offseason, a Burnes-to-Baltimore deal would’ve hardly been shocking; most everyone figured the O’s would exchange some of their stockpile of young talent for a rotation upgrade, and everyone assumed Milwaukee would be motivated to move on from its ace before he hit free agency next winter. And yet, the timing here — just weeks before pitchers and catchers report, when it seemed both teams were content to keep their powder dry — caught the entire baseball world off guard. So: Who came out ahead here? Did both sides get what they wanted, and what does it mean for their short- and long-term futures? Let’s break it all down.
Corbin Burnes trade grades
I’ll admit, I’d just about given up hope that GM Mike Elias would pull the trigger on a deal like this. With Gunnar Henderson and Adley Rutschman anchoring one of the best young cores in the sport, the only thing keeping Baltimore from inner-circle was a bonafide ace — someone to knock Kyle Bradish and Grayson Rodriguez down a rung on the ladder and take a little pressure off. Burnes took a step back from his Cy Young peak in 2023, but he still absolutely fits that bill: The righty has churned out a 2.94 ERA with at least 28 starts per year over the last three seasons combined, a rare combination of upside and durability. His velocity and strikeout rate were both down, and his walk rate spiked, but his contact profile is still very strong, and his cutter remains an absolute bear that allows him to manage righties and lefties with equal aplomb.
At 29 years old and with several trend lines pointing down, there’s reason to be skeptical of how Burnes might age. But the O’s don’t have to worry about that: They only have him under team control for the upcoming season, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be at least a very good starter in 2024. Of all the available options, Burnes was the best mix of floor and ceiling, more reliable than Dylan Cease while a level above someone like Shane Bieber. Their 101-win campaign in 2023 proved that this Baltimore team is ahead of schedule, ready to win now, and that should compel Elias to act with urgency — the future is never promised, and you can never take our window for granted. This trade fills Baltimore’s biggest need, and it does so without giving up any prospects that the team will truly miss. The Orioles have more young infield talent than they know what to do with, and Ortiz is a rung below guys like Henderson, Jackson Holliday, Jordan Westburg and Coby Mayo. Hall flashed real upside toward the end of last season, and his floor appears to be “very good lefty reliever who can pitch multiple innings”, but that’s a player type you give up for someone like Burnes 10 times out of 10.
On the one hand, it feels unfair to render snap judgement against what seems pretty clearly to be just the first step in a multiple-transaction maneuver. Still, right now, it’s hard not to feel like this is a bit light for the biggest trade chip the Brewers had to cash in. Ortiz is an MLB-ready shortstop, with the defensive chops to play the position, even if there are lingering questions about his power and whether his aggressive approach at the plate will come back to bite him at the highest level. At the very least, his broad base of skills would seem to guarantee a solid big-league floor — although acquiring him does raise questions about Willy Adames’ future in Milwaukee, given that Ortiz will demand at-bats and has the sort of glove you don’t want to waste by sticking it at third base.
Hall, meanwhile, has the same sort of unique, explosive stuff from the left side as another former Orioles farmhand turned Brewers star: Josh Hader. Milwaukee figures to give Hall every chance to stick as a starter, and if he harnesses his command, his strikeout rate (12.7 K/9 in the Minors) hints at his immense upside, with a riding fastball, a big slider and a changeup that’s more impressive than you’d think from this kind of power profile. But even if the command doesn’t develop, his success in 2023 points to his potential in the sort of multi-inning, high-leverage relief weapon that’s becoming more and more en vogue around the league. Milwaukee has had success with their pitching development in recent years, even with big-stuff, low-command prospects like Hall, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he emerges as a top-end starter a la Freddy Peralta.
So that’s one position player and one pitcher, a nice combination of floor and upside, plus a not-insignificant draft pick. For a pitcher with one year of team control remaining, that’s not bad work, even if Brewers fans are right to feel like their team sold a little low. And there will be plenty of questions to come about why Milwaukee pulled the trigger when they did, and whether they should’ve given contention a shot in 2024 before reassessing things at the trade deadline. This is a fine package, but it’s not overwhelming, and absent any other wheeling and dealing it’s hard not to feel a little underwhelmed as the team appears to be signaling a retooling in the near term.