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Did the Brewers botch the Corbin Burnes deal? Breaking down the pros and cons

Milwaukee has been largely pilloried for the return for their ace, but is that a fair judgment?

Corbin Burnes of the Milwaukee Brewers pitches in the first inning against the Minnesota Twins at American Family Field on August 23, 2023 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

The Hot Stove got shaken from its slumber in a big way on Thursday night, as the Orioles and Brewers hooked up for a blockbuster deal sending ace Corbin Burnes to Baltimore in exchange for Minor League infielder Joey Ortiz, young lefty DL Hall and the 34th pick in the 2024 MLB Draft.

In the immediate aftermath of the trade, most reactions — ours among them — have framed it as a clear win for the O’s. Which is more than fair, considering that Baltimore filled its one clear need with probably the best pitcher available and now looks the part of AL favorites. But just because a deal is a win for one side doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a loss in the other direction, and while Brewers GM Matt Arnold has come in for plenty of criticism for the return here, I’m not so sure that’s fair.

Yes, Burnes is among the best starters in the game and Milwaukee’s most valuable trade asset, and yes, the optics of turning that into a 25-year-old infielder and a pitcher who’s been as yet unable to stick in a big league rotation aren’t great. But is this deal really as bad as it seems for the Brewers? Why did Arnold decide to pull the trigger now, for this specific deal? Let’s break down the arguments for and against.

In favor of the Corbin Burnes trade

His market wasn’t as strong as you think

This is no shade at Burnes, who took a small step back to start 2023 (at least relative to his 2021 and 2022 campaigns) but was his typically excellent self down the stretch. Rather, this is the reality for players entering contract years: They never go for as much of a haul as you think they will.

Just look at the Juan Soto deal from back in December. Burnes, like Juan Soto, is a Scott Boras client, which means that he, like Soto, will almost certainly be testing free agency next winter. (He’s been skeptical about signing an extension in the past.) Soto is among the very best hitters in the game, just entering his prime at age 25. And yet, the five-player haul the Padres got in return for their superstar outfielder doesn’t look all that dissimilar from what the Brewers got for Burnes — both were headlined by a top-100 prospect (Drew Thorpe from the Yankees vs. Ortiz from the Orioles) and a promising if risky reliever-turned-starter (Michael King vs. Hall). Sure, New York also included two more depth arms and backup catcher Kyle Higashioka, but Milwaukee could reasonably claim that the draft pick they’re getting will turn into a player at least that valuable, and it makes sense that a 29-year-old pitcher won’t demand quite as much of a haul as a player like Soto.

The point remains: Teams, especially ones like the Orioles that have been loathe to shell out big contracts in recent years, are hesitant to go all-in on pending free agents that they have very little chance to re-sign. There’s little reason to believe that the market for Burnes ever got as frothy as fans want to believe, which is why it looked just a couple weeks ago like Milwaukee was content to hang on to their ace into the 2024 season.

This return is better than you think

In addition to a misjudgment of the market, I also think there’s a bit of a misjudgment regarding the players that the Brewers are getting back here. Forget where Ortiz ranks on an Orioles prospect list; this Baltimore system is among the best we’ve seen in recent years, and the fact that Ortiz doesn’t land in the top five is hardly an indictment against him. The 25-year-old profiles as an above-average regular, with solid skills across the board and the ability to spray line drives all over the place and handle the defensive rigors of either shortstop or second base. His ability to both make lots of contact (20th-highest contact rate among qualified hitters in Triple-A last year) while hitting the ball hard (105.3-mph 90th-percentile exit velocity, 48th out of 245 batters with at least 300 PAs) points to an above-average offensive profile, and when you pair that with above-average defense, you’ve got a starting-caliber player on a contending team.

Where most evaluations of this deal really trip themselves up, however, is with Hall — whose track record to this point likely leaves fans cold, but who the Brewers clearly believe contains massive potential worthy of anchoring a deal of this magnitude. To be sure, there’s risk here: The lefty has paired big strikeout rates with inflated ERAs at every step of his pro career, and Baltimore only trusted him in relief in 2023. But he did start showing some of his massive upside in the bullpen, and if some of those command gains stick moving forward, his fastball/slider/changeup combination gives him as much upside as just about anyone. Players with that sort of ceiling don’t come available often, and they’re the kind of player that teams like the Brewers — who will never be a marquee free-agent destination — have to roll the dice on. Milwaukee’s pitching development team has earned the benefit of the doubt here, and Hall’s worst-case scenario is becoming the sort of multi-inning relief weapon that’s increasingly en vogue around the league.

Milwaukee can’t afford to stop churning

Which brings us to the final point here: Milwaukee’s economic reality is what it is, and requires their front office to be constantly one step ahead — much like the Rays, who just flipped their own pending free-agent in Tyler Glasnow earlier this winter. With Brandon Woodruff out for most if not all of 2024, contending was going to be a long shot, and losing Burnes for nothing but a draft pick would’ve been a hard pill to swallow. The Brewers’ ability to remain viable in the NL Central depends on their ability to develop players like Burnes, then flip them for players like Hall who they can hopefully develop to take their place. Milwaukee got a ready-made big-league shortstop in Ortiz, and a moonshot bid for a future ace in Hall, two players who could very well be critical pieces of the next contending Brewers team.

Against the Corbin Burnes trade

The NL Central remains wide open

Of course, part of the reason this deal was such a surprise is that, just a week or two ago, it seemed like the Brewers were ready to make one more run at a division crown. Sure, Woodruff’s injury hurt, but the team still had a core of Burnes, Freddy Peralta, Christian Yelich, William Contreras, Willy Adames, Devin Williams and the newly acquired Rhys Hoskins, plus top prospects Jackson Chourio and Tyler Black banging on the door to the Majors. In an NL Central in which the Cubs, Cardinals and Reds all have major question marks, it was by no means out of the question that Milwaukee could once again reach the postseason.

Hall has a long way to go

Hall’s ceiling is all well and good, but Burnes was Milwaukee’s one real chance at acquiring a future star, and the lefty has a long way to go if he’s going to make good on that potential. Again, Milwaukee’s two real paths to impact talent are drafting it or trading for it, and with Burnes now gone, the latter option is off the board. Is Hall enough? His command has held him back at every step of his pro career, and while he took steps forward in 2023, it was exclusively as a reliever. Now he’s going to a worse home ballpark for pitching, and we’ve still yet to see good reason to believe he can harness his control well enough to become the next Blake Snell. If he’s a (very good) reliever, instead, that’s a big setback.

Why not wait until the trade deadline?

This, to me, is the argument against this trade that I find most compelling. Ortiz and Hall may seem like a light return, but I think it’s fair enough given that duo’s potential at premium positions and the reality of Burnes’ contract. But I can’t help but ask: Why now? Milwaukee had held firm for almost the entire offseason, and while the Orioles’ offer is hardly laughable, it also feels like the sort of package that the Brewers could’ve pulled the trigger on at any time. Waiting until the trade deadline does invite risk — risk that Burnes gets hurt, or that the Orioles aren’t as good as expected and aren’t as willing to buy. If the Brewers are really sold on Hall, which it seems like they are, you can understand why they’d pull the trigger now. But it’s hard to believe that Baltimore won’t be just as motivated to make this move in August, and waiting also invites positive risk in the form of a desperate contender willing to meet you more than halfway. I certainly wouldn’t hammer Arnold for making this deal as he tries to navigate a tricky retooling process without pulling the cord entirely, but if I were him, I probably would’ve waited just a little bit longer to see how good the 2024 Brewers could’ve been — and how the deadline market shook out.