Brewers non-tender Woodruff, Tellez

November 18th, 2023

MILWAUKEE – , the right-hander who led the wave of home-grown pitching that has carried the Brewers through a stretch of unprecedented regular-season success, became a free agent when the team non-tendered him on Friday.

Brewers officials made the decision reluctantly, on a day teams across MLB were required to commit to proceeding into the arbitration process with their eligible players, or cut them loose. For Woodruff, it marked the end – at least for now – of a tenure that saw him beat the odds by transforming from an 11th-round draft pick in 2014 into a two-time All-Star, whose 3.10 ERA is the best ever for a Brewers pitcher with 500-plus innings, and whose electrifying home run off Clayton Kershaw in Game 1 of the 2018 NLCS stands as a Top 10 moment in franchise history.

With only one year of control remaining in 2024, and with Woodruff unlikely to pitch much or at all following right shoulder surgery last month, the Brewers found themselves in a painful position with their longtime ace as Friday’s tender deadline approached.

"Man, that was a tough phone call," GM Matt Arnold said after delivering the news to Woodruff. "It was tough, it was emotional. But he's been awesome for us in so many ways, and I still think there's a chance he could be part of our team in the future. But yeah, it's certainly a tough day any time you have to deliver news to somebody who means that much to your franchise."

The Brewers also non-tendered first baseman , their 2022 home run champ who suffered through injury and a slump in ‘23, rather than proceed in a process expected to reward Tellez with a salary approaching $6 million, along with reliever , who was hit with a 162-game PED suspension in September. They joined Woodruff in free agency.

Nine other Brewers players were tendered contracts, most of them easy calls. They included Woodruff’s co-ace, , as well as shortstop and relievers , , and , all of whom played prominent roles for the NL Central Division champions last season. Ditto swingman and outfielder , and first baseman/outfielder , who was acquired Friday from the Yankees for a pair of prospects.

But with Woodruff in particular, it was not as straightforward.

Like Burnes and Adames, Woodruff is heading toward his final year of club control before free agency. Unlike those two, he probably won’t be able to contribute in 2024. Woodruff underwent surgery on Oct. 13 to repair the anterior capsule in his right shoulder, a procedure that leaves only a slim chance he’ll be able to pitch late next season.

So, the Brewers were left with tough choices.

1. They could tender Woodruff a contract and go through the arbitration process, hoping he’ll pitch at some point in 2024 to lay the groundwork for re-signing for '25 and beyond. It would be a risky and expensive bet; Woodruff earned $10.8 million this season, and given the way the arbitration system works, he could actually earn more next year.

2. The Brewers and Woodruff's agent, Bo McKinnis, could negotiate a multi-year contract with the idea that he'd rehab in 2024, then have a chance to re-establish himself in '25 and possibly beyond. That, too, would be risky and expensive, since the nature of shoulder injuries mean there are no guarantees of a smooth rehab.

3. The Brewers could trade Woodruff to a club willing to attempt such an arrangement. The fact he went untraded on Friday, however, meant no team was willing to assume that risk considering the cost.

4. The Brewers could non-tender Woodruff and keep the door open to re-signing later.

The last option was the one that transpired. Woodruff is the third starting pitcher the Brewers have lost since season's end, after elected free agency when he was removed from the 40-man roster and declined his half of a mutual option. Since Burnes is a potential trade chip this winter, and left-hander is coming off a season lost to his own shoulder injury, that leaves only , and perhaps Houser as locks at this time for next year's rotation. The Brewers do like pitching prospects and , both of whom are poised to break into the Major Leagues at some point next season. 

"I still think we have a pretty solid foundation," Arnold said. "We didn't get a ton of innings out of Woodruff last year, honestly. We do have a number of guys who can step up."

His future employer uncertain, Woodruff will plow forward in his rehabilitation. The next milestone, he said in a telephone conversation earlier this month, will be an eight-week post-procedure visit in Dallas with his surgeon, Dr. Keith Meister.

Even then, the schedule will all be tentative. That’s true of any injury, but particularly shoulders, which Woodruff learned earlier last season when he suffered a subscapular strain. It lingered much longer than he’d hoped, with starts and stops along the way until he returned Aug. 6 and went 4-1 with a 2.13 ERA over eight stellar starts before a clunker at the Marlins on Sept. 23 which, in hindsight, was a sign of real trouble.

“Talking with multiple doctors, yes, there is a pathway to throwing in 2024,” Woodruff said. “There really is. There is a realistic path. Then this turns into, is it worth throwing in 2024 or not? But there is a pathway. I have to have a goal to be set.

“At the same time, I have the rest of my career to think about, too. It’s a lot of different things I have to weigh out. But as far as how the surgery went, it’s all very, very positive.”