Trade Hader? Here’s why the Brewers should

August 30th, 2020

After striking out more than 47% of the batters he faced over 2018-19, Brewers closer has continued to assert his dominance in ’20, at least until an extreme bout of wildness on Saturday (five walks) led to his first two runs allowed and first blown save. Despite that, Hader still hasn't allowed a hit in 9 2/3 innings -- a full no-hitter plus two outs.

The left-hander is still just 26 years old, with three years of team control remaining after this one before he can become a free agent. Sounds like a guy who’s going to be in Milwaukee for a long time, right? Maybe not.

According to a report from MLB Network insider Ken Rosenthal in an article for The Athletic (subscription required), the Brewers are open to dealing Hader, though a rival executive told Rosenthal it would take a “bananas price” to pry him away from Milwaukee before the Trade Deadline on Monday.

The reasons why another team should trade for Hader are obvious, but would the Brewers really move on from such an electric bullpen arm in his prime?

Believe it or not, there are a bunch of reasons why now is the time to trade the southpaw, even if another team isn’t willing to meet 100% of Milwaukee’s purportedly lofty demands.

1) His value is at its peak -- and may only decrease from here

Since he debuted in 2017, Hader has shown the ability to pitch in any relief situation -- closing, setting up, throwing multiple innings, whatever the Brewers have needed. Among hurlers who have thrown at least 200 innings since the beginning of 2017, Hader’s 44.1% strikeout rate is first by nearly 5 percentage points, and his .141 opponents’ batting average is 51 points lower than that of the next-closest pitcher. He owns a lifetime 2.39 ERA and a 0.86 WHIP.

All of that is to say, there’s nothing Hader can do to significantly improve his trade value. He's already the top reliever in the game, Saturday's hiccup notwithstanding, and he’s only going to get older and closer to free agency.

Meanwhile, Hader’s velocity dip is a cause for concern. With his average four-seam fastball velocity down to 94.3 mph (95.5 in 2019), the 26-year-old has used his slider much more this season. And while he’s still shutting down hitters with his heater, his whiff rate on the pitch has dropped to 32.1%, while his four-seamer putaway rate is 8.9%. Hader led MLB in both categories last season (41% whiff rate, 34.8% putaway rate on four-seamers).

Additionally, the decrease in his fastball usage has coincided with a spike in walk rate, from 6.9% to an eye-popping 25.0% after Saturday's struggles. Meanwhile, his strikeout rate has fallen to 35.0% -- still elite, but not quite where he was in previous years. The concern about his fastball may be mild, especially given how great his slider looks, but it’s still there.

2) Trading an elite reliever for a potential star at another position is worth the risk

As valuable as a dominant bullpen can be, the impact of any one reliever is mitigated by his light workload relative to other positions. The Brewers have played 32 games this season, and Hader has appeared in 10 of them, throwing 9 2/3 innings.

It would be a risk to exchange a proven commodity like Hader for an unproven prospect at another position, but from a cost-analysis standpoint, the potential payoff is worth the risk. Not only are relievers used sparingly compared to other positions, but there’s also a ton of variance at the position from year to year.

Edwin Díaz, who is the same age as Hader, was the best closer in baseball with the Mariners in 2018. But after being traded to the Mets in a deal that brought outfield prospect Jarred Kelenic (MLB’s No. 12 overall prospect) to Seattle, Díaz melted down last season. And while the righty's surface stats look great in 2020, the Mets have been using him in lower-leverage situations.

Díaz is perhaps the best example of why teams should cash in on elite relievers when they have the chance.

3) It’s not that hard to find good relievers

Every year brings another wave of relievers who come out of nowhere and establish themselves as top bullpen arms. Last season, it was , , Nick Anderson, and . This season, , Jonathan Hernández, , , and are among the relievers who have emerged around the league.

In the Brewers’ own bullpen, the trio of Devin Williams, Freddy Peralta and has been spectacular. Williams (0.73 ERA, 18.2 K/9) had 13 2/3 career innings coming into this season, Peralta (2.45 ERA, 17.2 K/9 as a reliever) posted a 5.29 ERA last season and Phelps (2.77 ERA, 13.8 K/9) is a 33-year-old on his sixth MLB team.

Even Hader himself was a surprise back in 2017. A 19th-round Draft pick in 2012, Hader was traded twice before finding a home in the Brewers organization, then turned himself into a highly ranked prospect as a starting pitcher. Hader had a 5.37 ERA with an 8.8 K-BB% over 12 starts in Triple-A to start 2017, but he was an instant success as a reliever after getting called up to the Majors, and he has continued to shine.

4) Hader is only going to get more expensive

As a Super Two player, Hader is eligible for arbitration four times instead of the usual three before free agency. He went through the first round of arbitration this past offseason, losing his case to the Brewers, who submitted a salary of $4.1 million. Hader was seeking $6.4 million, which would have set a record for the largest salary ever for a first-time-arbitration-eligible reliever, currently held by Jonathan Papelbon.

Papelbon made $6.25 million in his first year of arbitration and reached $12 million by his final year, which gives you a sense of how high Hader’s salary might climb from here. Hader also has one more year of arbitration eligibility than Papelbon did. Hader’s future earning potential is surely something the small-market Brewers are taking into consideration.

5) Trading Hader wouldn’t necessarily eliminate them from contention in 2020

The Brewers might be able to have the best of both worlds if they trade Hader, acquiring future assets while still remaining in contention in 2020. Milwaukee enters play on Sunday with a 15-17 record but right in the thick of the playoff race due to this season's expanded field, and that’s with , and combining for -1.0 bWAR.

As noted above, the Brewers have the arms in the ’pen to compensate for the loss of Hader during the regular season, and once they get to the playoffs, anything can happen.

Eight of the last nine World Series champions either have used a different primary closer in the postseason than the one who opened the year in the role, or had no set closer at all during their run to a title. The exception was the 2018 Red Sox, who walked the tightrope with throughout the playoffs, then used ace out of the bullpen to get the final three outs in the World Series.

The Brewers must also consider that, even with Hader, their current roster might have a ceiling on how high it can climb. Yelich and Hiura are surrounded by a 36-year-old Braun and a group of veteran journeymen on the position-player side, and is their only starting pitcher who is close to an ace. Meanwhile, the team's lone Top 100 prospect is 66th-ranked outfielder Garrett Mitchell, who isn't projected to reach the Majors until 2023.

The Brewers might not get a "bananas" offer for Hader before the Deadline, but if they have a chance to improve upon their core of Yelich, Hiura and Woodruff by trading Hader, they should go for it.