Why scouts love this trade for Brewers

January 13th, 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.

How many of you looked at the details of last month’s trade between the Brewers, Braves and A’s, saw what Milwaukee gave up to get two pitchers along with -- an All-Star catcher who turned 25 on Christmas Eve who has produced big offensive numbers and has five years of control -- and asked yourself this question:

That’s all it took?

That’s not a criticism of speedy outfield prospect Esteury Ruiz, the lone player given up by Brewers GM Matt Arnold in the nine-player deal, which, in adding Contreras with reliever Joel Payamps and pitching prospect Justin Yeager, represents Milwaukee’s biggest offseason move to date. Speed could be more valuable than ever in light of MLB's rule changes in 2023, and Ruiz has as much of it as anybody. But he also was fourth or fifth on the Crew’s list of outfield prospects and doesn’t possess the power that has dominated the sport in recent years. So I sought the opinions of three scouting officials in the wake of the deal, and all three said that to get a frontline catcher plus two arms, and only give up Ruiz, represented a win for Arnold and the Brewers.

“I’m very surprised,” said a top evaluator for one NL team. “[I] think they did really well.”

“Ruiz is a wild card,” said a scout for an AL team. “Could be a star or a complete flop. In the end, I think Ruiz will be a bench player.”

Said an NL scout: “[The Brewers] did well to get a quality young catcher to shore up a need. I don’t see Ruiz as an everyday type.”

Of course, nothing is guaranteed in baseball. Contreras still has to establish himself as an everyday catcher in the big leagues. The pitchers picked up by Milwaukee could flop. And Ruiz could thrive in Oakland’s spacious outfield in a version of MLB that prizes speed. Snap reactions to trades often get outdated in a hurry.

But, on first glance, it looks like the opportunistic approach that Arnold espoused when he took over the Brewers’ top baseball operations post paid off in this instance. The trade capped several weeks of watching the ebbs and flows of the Sean Murphy talks from afar.

Atlanta saw a chance to upgrade at catcher and was willing to part with three pitchers on its MLB Pipeline Top 30 Prospects list to make it happen, including top prospect Kyle Muller, a left-hander. That made Contreras available to the Brewers, who stepped in to gladly accept that extra piece while sending Ruiz to Oakland to sweeten the deal from the A’s point of view.

Everyone emerged happy. The Braves and the Brewers upgraded behind the plate, and the A’s stockpiled prospects in hopes that some of them pan out.

Improving at catcher was a priority for Arnold and the Brewers, who were 22nd among MLB teams in OPS at catcher and 19th in overall offensive production from that position, using wRC+ as the measure. (Check out our MLB.com glossary for more about what goes into wRC+ if you’re interested.)

“We were talking about this in San Diego [at the Winter Meetings]: It’s why we bring the whiteboard,” Arnold said. “When we write down all those ideas in the room, 99.8% of them never happen, but then you start pulling things like this together and it’s like, ‘Hey, would this fit for this club?’ and, ‘Does this make sense here?’ and trying to satisfy different parties. … When it comes together like this, it’s a really good feeling for our entire staff.”