The Brewers have already swung a notable trade this offseason, sending right fielder Hunter Renfroe to the Angels in exchange for a trio of pitchers earlier this week.
The move kicks off what could potentially be an active winter for Milwaukee on the trading front. Over the next few weeks, Brew Crew Ball will explore Brewers who could switch teams via trade before Opening Day.
One group the Brewers could trade from is their starting rotation. Who are some pitchers who could be on the move?
There are no verified reports that the Brewers actively seek to move one of their co-aces, but that has not stopped speculation that Burnes or Woodruff could soon have new homes.
Earlier this month, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that Burnes is “expected to be in play” for trades. That same day, ESPN’s Jeff Passan said that the Brewers are more likely to build around Burnes and Woodruff than they are to trade them.
Since the start of the 2020 season, Burnes leads all qualified starting pitchers in ERA, FIP, fWAR, K-BB%, and WHIP. Since 2019, Woodruff ranks sixth in the first three categories, fifth in K-BB%, and third in WHIP. Both have two years of control remaining before they are scheduled to hit free agency.
Trading Burnes or Woodruff would be akin to the Josh Hader trade earlier this year, but it would be on a much grander scale with higher stakes.
On the one hand, one of the best starting pitchers in baseball would not make a massive return that could help the Brewers both now and in the future.
On the other hand, such a package would dwarf the Hader return because an elite starting pitcher is far more valuable than an elite reliever. That also makes them less replaceable.
Part of the rationale behind parting with Hader in the middle of a playoff race was that despite his dominance, he was limited to a strict one-inning role, limiting his regular-season impact to roughly 60 innings. Burnes and Woodruff have averaged 204 and 197 innings per 162 games since 2020, respectively.
Whereas relievers are often inconsistent from year-to-year and have short peaks, elite starting pitchers don’t grow on trees. Despite how enticing a return package may look, the risk associated with trading Burnes or Woodruff may be too significant to assume.
Lauer is a more realistic trade candidate than Burnes or Woodruff and may be the most likely Brewers starter to be dealt.
The left-hander has been a productive middle-of-the-rotation arm the past two seasons, posting a combined 3.47 ERA in 277 1⁄3 innings.
However, there’s a case for selling high on Lauer.
Lauer’s deceptive fastball (nicknamed the “Zoomball”) is his bread and butter. Its 29.8% whiff rate in 2022 ranked sixth among qualified starters after a similarly-excellent 26.5% whiff rate in 2021.
The problem is that Lauer doesn’t do an especially great job in any other area of pitching.
The rest of his arsenal outside of the Zoomball is uninspiring. Lauer’s slider has been a solid secondary pitch, but according to Statcast’s pitch run values, his cutter, curveball, and changeup were all below average.
The 27-year-old had a slightly above-average strikeout rate last season but was below average in nearly all other key pitching metrics.
Lauer has also struggled with the long ball, allowing 1.21 home runs per nine innings in 2021 and 1.53 in 2022.
Over the past two seasons, Lauer has an 85 ERA- but a less encouraging 105 FIP-. He’s essentially a league-average pitcher and somewhat of a one-trick pony. The Brewers may be wise to sell high this winter. Like Burnes and Woodruff, he has two more years of control.
Rosenthal lists Houser as a potential trade candidate alongside Burnes in his column, but a trade involving the sinkerballer seems unlikely for multiple reasons.
First of all, the brewers would be selling low. Houser battled injuries last year and limped to a 4.73 ERA in 102 2⁄3 innings.
Second of all, while Houser’s $3.6 million salary for 2023 represents a slight raise, it’s unlikely the Brewers see that deal as poor value. Houser’s career 101 ERA and 103 FIP as a starter are just a hair below the league average, and you won’t find a capable fifth starter for much less than what he’ll make next year.
As is the case with all of their players, the Brewers are willing to listen on Houser in case anyone is interested and offers a good enough return. Don’t expect him to be moved, though.