3 years later, this trade has flipped in a BIG way

Lauer's breakout has made 2019 Padres-Brewers trade a win for Crew

May 25th, 2022

Sometimes, it becomes clear very quickly which team won a trade. Other times, it takes years to declare a winner. Then there are the rare deals where one team looks like the obvious victor, only for the script to flip.

The latter scenario describes this November 2019 trade between the Brewers and Padres:

Padres received: OF Trent Grisham, RHP Zach Davies
Brewers received: IF Luis Urías, LHP Eric Lauer, a PTBNL or cash

Milwaukee and San Diego will wrap up a three-game series at Petco Park on Wednesday, so it seems like a perfect time to revisit the trade and examine how it’s flipped in favor of the Crew, thanks in large part to Lauer’s breakout.

How it started

When the trade went down, Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns described it as a deal that would address the needs of two up-and-coming clubs.

“This is one of those trades -- and they don’t come across all that often -- where you really are lining up on team needs with another team,” Stearns said. “This isn’t a case of one team in a competitive cycle and one team in a build cycle. These are two teams that intend to be competitive next year. We believe we’re lining up on a good trade that helps both teams.”

From the Brewers’ perspective, Urías was the jewel of the deal. Although he hit .221/.318/.331 during his time with the Padres across 2018-19, the infielder was MLB’s No. 23 overall prospect entering 2019. Milwaukee planned for him to compete with Orlando Arcia for the starting shortstop job.

While never as highly ranked as Urías, Grisham was also a former Top 100 prospect who showed promise with a .300/.407/.603 Minor League slash line in 2019. The outfielder made his big league debut with the Brewers on Aug. 1, 2019, and moved right into the starting lineup, hitting .231 with six homers and a .738 OPS in 51 games as a rookie.

However, his untimely error in right field during the National League Wild Card Game against the Nationals allowed the go-ahead run to score on Juan Soto’s bases-loaded single in the bottom of the eighth inning. He never had a chance to earn redemption in a Brewers uniform, with the Padres acquiring him the following month.

The Friars also shored up their rotation with the addition of Davies, a veteran with a career 3.91 ERA at the time of the trade, including a 3.55 ERA over 31 starts in 2019.

Lauer, who never appeared on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 prospects list, was easily the fourth-most notable piece of the trade. The left-hander posted a 4.40 ERA and a 1.46 WHIP in 261 2/3 innings over 2018-19.

Urías’ Brewers debut was delayed after he tested positive for COVID-19 in July, and he never found his footing during the shortened 2020 campaign, hitting .239 with no home runs and a .602 OPS in 41 games.

Milwaukee didn’t get much from Lauer, either, as the southpaw registered a 13.09 ERA over 11 innings.

Meanwhile, Grisham and Davies became key pieces for a Padres club that recorded a .617 winning percentage and earned its first postseason appearance since 2006.

2020 wins above replacement, per Baseball-Reference
Grisham and Davies: 4.1
Urías and Lauer: -0.5

Taking over as San Diego’s starting center fielder after the club traded Manuel Margot to the Rays that February, Grisham won a Gold Glove Award and finished with 10 homers, 10 steals and an .808 OPS across 59 games. Just 23 years old at the time, he looked to be a foundational piece for the Padres alongside Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado.

Davies made 12 starts and posted a 2.73 ERA over 69 1/3 innings before being packaged with four prospects and sent to the Cubs in San Diego’s trade for Yu Darvish and Victor Caratini (now a Brewer) in December 2020.

How it’s going

It was more of the same at the start of 2021, but everything began to shift last summer.

Grisham's production sharply declined in the second half of 2021, and his struggles have only gotten worse in 2022. He entered Tuesday's game hitting .157 with one homer and a .515 OPS through 40 games.

Conversely, Urías hit 23 homers and put up a .789 OPS in 150 games last season and has delivered an .868 OPS in 17 games since returning from a season-opening IL stint in 2022.

Really, though, anything Milwaukee gets from Urías seems like a bonus considering how much Lauer has progressed. In his past 22 appearances (21 starts) dating back to June 27, 2021, he owns a 2.21 ERA, the second-best mark in the game during that span (minimum 100 innings).

In 2022, Lauer is one of five pitchers (minimum 40 innings) with an ERA of 3.00 or lower and a strikeout rate of 30% or higher. In both departments, Lauer is better than teammate Corbin Burnes, the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner and a strong contender to win the award again this season.

ERA of 3.00 or lower, K-rate of 30% or higher, 2022
Minimum 40 innings
Corbin Burnes -- 2.26 ERA, 31.5% K-rate
Nestor Cortes -- 1.80 ERA, 32.4% K-rate
Eric Lauer -- 2.16 ERA, 32.9% K-rate
Shane McClanahan -- 2.33 ERA, 36.7% K-rate
Max Scherzer -- 2.54 ERA, 30.6% K-rate

Lauer’s four-seam fastball has propelled his rise from afterthought to ace. When he first broke into the Majors, he sat around 91 mph with the pitch. Now, his average four-seamer velocity is around 94 mph, and he’s thrown 53% of his four-seamers faster than that, compared to just 5.4% from 2018-21.

Lauer’s four-seamer spin rate is also up this year, and the pitch is dropping 2.5 fewer inches on average on its way to the plate than it did two years ago, giving it more of the “rising” effect that contributes to swings and misses, especially when it’s thrown up in the zone.

No starting pitcher -- not Gerrit Cole or Zack Wheeler or Dylan Cease -- has a higher whiff rate (misses / swings) on four-seam fastballs this season than Lauer.

Highest four-seam fastball whiff rate, SP, 2022
Minimum 100 swings on four-seamers
Eric Lauer: 37.1%
Gerrit Cole: 35.2%
Zack Wheeler: 30.7%
Tylor Megill: 29.4%
Alek Manoah: 28.8%

The increase in fastball velocity and spin has coincided with a change in Lauer’s delivery. This tweet from @PitchingNinja comparing Lauer's delivery from 2019 with his delivery on May 6 of this year shows how he has shortened up his arm action, becoming more compact from glove to release. It's a change that Lauer pointed to last season in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel while explaining his improved performance.

Despite these advancements, Lauer actually has become less reliant on his heater, throwing it a career-low 37.2% of the time in 2022. Four of his pitches have a usage rate over 19%, including his slider, which he’s throwing a career-high 21.3% of the time. Opponents have hit just .108 on sliders this season when facing Lauer, who also regularly features a cutter (19.9%) and a curveball (19.7%).

Lauer is the latest pitcher development success story for the Brewers, who have become adept at identifying potential gems and getting the most out of them.

Burnes was a fourth-round Draft pick. Brandon Woodruff, an 11th-rounder. Lauer, Freddy Peralta and Adrian Houser were picked up in trades. Those five collectively have posted a 2.90 ERA and a 10.3 K/9 in 170 starts since the beginning of 2021.

Lauer was more of a luxury for Milwaukee's rotation last season, but that's no longer the case. Though Burnes is authoring a strong encore to his Cy Young campaign, Woodruff is still searching for consistency, having recorded a 4.76 ERA through eight starts, and Peralta is expected to be sidelined for a lengthy period of time with a shoulder injury.

The onus is on Lauer to sustain his performance, and to keep this trade in the win column for the Crew.