Keep him? Trade him? Here are factors in play for Crew, Burnes

November 28th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Adam McCalvy's Brewers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

MILWAUKEE – The Brewers and  are creeping closer to a crossroads, and next week’s Winter Meetings in Nashville, Tenn., should offer some clues about which path the club plans to take.

Here are the facts to know: Burnes is one of baseball’s true No. 1 starters, with the second-highest fWAR (17.9) in MLB over the past four seasons. He’s fifth in innings over that span, so he’s been durable. He turned 29 last month, so he is in his prime. He’s also approaching free agency. Milwaukee controls Burnes’ contractual rights for only one more season at a salary to be determined via the arbitration process (Cot’s Contracts estimated a figure in the neighborhood of $16 million).

Add those facts together, and it leaves you with two options if you’re Milwaukee GM Matt Arnold:

1. Keep Burnes for the start of 2024 and see what happens.
If you reach midseason and think you have a playoff-caliber club, you can keep him and go for it, and you can always make him a qualifying offer and reap a prime pick in the 2025 MLB Draft. But if you think it’s time to reload the farm system and Burnes is pitching the way you expect him to pitch, you probably hold the best available arm at the Trade Deadline.

2. Trade Burnes now, while he’s at the peak of his value.
You’ll notice that “sign him to an extension” is not one of the options. While things can always change with one phone call, the reality is that an extension doesn’t seem in the cards, as Burnes, a client of agent Scott Boras, explained on Fair Territory on Nov. 17. 

“That was never something that we got to,” Burnes said when former Brewers catcher Erik Kratz asked him about the possibility of an extension. “Obviously, coming off the shortened season in 2020, having my first good year after signing [for] ‘21, I think for them it was, ‘Hey, wait and see if this was a one-off year,' or if they thought this was something we could explore long-term. 

“And then I just had year after year that have been good, [and] I think it got to the point of they know their situation and where they’re at and their market size, and instead of making a player angry for sending a bad or really small or short-term or low number of an extension, it’s just like, ‘Hey, [to] be upfront, we respect what you’ve done and we’re not going to come at you with something that we don’t feel is what you’re worth as far as the market goes.’

“We never really talked there. I think a couple of years ago, I was open to going and getting something done, but I think at this point, both sides know that we’re a year away from free agency, and we want to see what the market can bring.”

So, let’s focus on the two likelier scenarios. Like everything in baseball, they carry risks. 

If you keep Burnes, there’s the risk of an injury. See: Brandon Woodruff. That could kill Burnes’ trade value relative to where it is now, coming off a healthy season in which he finished in the Top 10 of National League Cy Young Award balloting for the fourth consecutive year.

But trading him now carries its own risk. Woodruff, Wade Miley and Eric Lauer are gone from last season. Aaron Ashby is coming off a shoulder injury. Is a combination of Freddy Peralta, Colin Rea, Adrian Houser and prospects a strong enough foundation for a competitive starting rotation? 

On top of that, there’s always the risk that the prospects acquired for Burnes wouldn’t pan out.

While not altogether recent, the trade that sent Johan Santana from the Twins to the Mets in February 2008 is an example of a pitcher in his prime being dealt with a full year of control. The Twins got two Top 100 prospects in outfielder Carlos Gómez and right-hander Deolis Guerra, a just-graduated Top 100 prospect in right-hander Philip Humber, and a Triple-A starter in righty Kevin Mulvey. But it didn’t go as planned for Minnesota. Gómez didn’t blossom until four years later in Milwaukee. Guerra never made it as a starter but did get to the Majors as a reliever seven years later, and even had a one-game stint with the Brewers in 2019. Humber didn’t establish himself as a Major League starter until 2011 and, aside from pitching the 21st perfect game in MLB history in 2012 with the White Sox, didn’t exactly find stardom.

Here’s another example: In 2012, the Mets traded knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, with catchers Mike Nickeas and Josh Thole to the Blue Jays for two Top 100 prospects -- catcher Travis d'Arnaud and pitcher Noah Syndergaard -- plus veteran catcher John Buck and Minor League outfielder Wuilmer Becerra. The deal paid dividends for both sides. Dickey made at least 29 starts in each of the next four years in Toronto and d’Arnaud and Syndergaard certainly paid off for New York.

A more recent example was the January 2019 trade that sent Sonny Gray -- coming off a down year that makes his case different from Burnes’ -- from the Yankees to the Reds. The Reds got Gray and Minor League lefty Reiver Sanmartin for Shed Long Jr. and the 38th overall pick in the 2019 MLB Draft. The Yankees flipped Long Jr. to the Mariners the same day for center field prospect Josh Stowers, who played one year in New York’s system before losing 2020 to the pandemic. He’s been stuck at Double-A for the Rangers and Dodgers for the past three seasons. With the Draft pick, the Yankees took Missouri left-hander T.J. Sikkema, who didn’t pitch in 2020 because of the pandemic or in ‘21 due to a shoulder injury before he was packaged with prospects for Andrew Benintendi in 2002. 

In all three cases, the deal was contingent upon the acquiring team signing the pitcher to an extension. Should the Brewers attempt to trade Burnes, it could require that added step.

Adding yet another wrinkle, there’s another pitcher on the market in a similar spot: Rays right-hander Tyler Glasnow is owed $25 million in the final year of his contract in 2024 and is a trade candidate. My colleague Mark Sheldon reported this week that the Reds are one of the teams with interest.

So, that’s the landscape ahead of the Winter Meetings. MLB Network insider Jon Heyman reported this week that it’s more likely Burnes stays than goes. When asked about Burnes immediately after last season, Arnold said, “I would expect him to be a Brewer here next year.” 

And Burnes, for his part, is preparing to stay put. 

“My perspective on it is I’ve got to keep working out, keep training as if I’m going to go back to the Brewers,” he told Foul Territory. “Everything I’m hearing, I think it’s more just the Brewers doing their due diligence and saying, ‘Hey, if we get an offer, great.' But my perspective and where I’m at is I’m getting ready to go Opening Day for the Milwaukee Brewers.”