By Andy McCullough, Stephen J. Nesbitt, Will Sammon and Eno Sarris
Baltimore Orioles get: Corbin Burnes, RHP
Milwaukee Brewers get: DL Hall, LHP; Joey Ortiz, INF; 2024 Competitive Balance Round A draft pick (No. 34 overall)
Andy McCullough: There was consternation earlier this winter among Orioles supporters about the team’s lack of aggression in the pitching market. All the elements had aligned for the franchise in 2023 — a 101-win team, a young and vibrant core of position players, a rebuilt relationship with its fanbase. All the club needed was some help in the starting rotation, preferably in the form of a No. 1 starter. The organization possessed the farm-system surplus to get it done. In a mailbag I wrote last month, I answered a question from a Baltimore fan wondering what was taking general manager Mike Elias so long to address the vacancy.
“I’m not necessarily a fan of aggression for aggression’s sake,” I wrote. “If you land a good player on Nov. 15 or Jan. 15, it doesn’t really make a difference.”
And the same principle applies on Feb. 1. Credit to Elias for giving up the prospect capital required to make such a high-profile addition.
Here is where Corbin Burnes ranks among qualified starting pitchers since 2020:
- Second in wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs (17.9)
- Fifth in ERA (2.86)
- Third in FIP (2.84)
- Fifth in innings (622 1/3)
- Seventh in strikeout rate (11.06 per nine innings)
He is the complete package in terms of the modern starting pitcher. For a team like the Orioles, who may be likely to treat Burnes as a rental, the slight decline in his pitching metrics in 2023 is less alarming than it might be for a team interested in a long-term commitment, which Burnes will seek in free agency after this season. He provides a front-line starter to a rotation that already features promising arms like Kyle Bradish and Grayson Rodriguez, with John Means also expected to play a major role in 2024.
The centerpiece of the return package for Milwaukee is DL Hall, a former first-round pick who debuted in Baltimore’s bullpen last season. The Brewers believe Hall can develop into a quality starter — a belief that Elias shared, for what it’s worth — and are optimistic about infielder Joey Ortiz, who was pretty much blocked in Baltimore’s infield. The 34th pick in this year’s draft is a nice addition.
This trade is unlikely to be popular in Milwaukee. Depending on your perspective, it signals either capitulation in the short-term — a reigning division winner trading its best player even though the division is still quite winnable — or the cost of doing business for a club that has committed to this style of team-building. The Brewers have not punted on 2024; they signed Rhys Hoskins for a reason. Yet the team knew it was not going to sign Burnes to a long-term deal. They opted to maximize his value rather than just receive draft-pick compensation next summer. Knowing how Milwaukee tends to optimize pitchers, it wouldn’t shock me if Hall emerges as an All-Star in 2024.
Even so, it is always a bummer when teams part with elite players in this fashion. Burnes emerged as a star in Milwaukee, anchoring the club to repeated postseason appearances alongside Brandon Woodruff in recent years. Woodruff’s shoulder injury last season ended his tenure in Milwaukee. This does not mean the Brewers won’t be competitive this season. They still might be the favorites in the National League Central. With Woodruff gone, with Craig Counsell ensconced in Chicago and now with Burnes bound for Charm City, an era has ended in Milwaukee.
Brewers grade: B
Orioles grade: A
Stephen J. Nesbitt: In one fell swoop, by landing the top starting pitcher on the trade market the Orioles have taken their rotation from middle of the pack to something approaching potent. The Orioles have been rewarded for their lengthy rebuild with a lineup packed with young talent — and more premium prospects on the way — but the missing piece of their puzzle was an ace. Burnes is every bit an ace. Don’t take it from me. Take it from the industry experts who voted him last spring as Gerrit Cole’s equal and a top-three starter in the sport.
“Cerebral,” a scout said at the time. “Durable. Damn good. He’s got it all.”
He does indeed. Burnes didn’t become a regular in the Brewers’ rotation until 2020, then he turned in a 2.86 ERA across the following four seasons — winning a Cy Young Award in 2021 and finishing sixth, seventh and eighth the other years. That the Orioles could offer a package of players for Burnes that left their core intact is a testament to the strength of the franchise’s farm system. Hall is a former first-rounder who moved to the bullpen because of command problems, though the Brewers will likely give him another shot at starting. Ortiz is a top-100 prospect, but the Orioles already have a projected 2024 infield of Gunnar Henderson (22 years old), Jackson Holliday (20) and Jordan Westburg (25), with second-rounder Connor Norby (23) at Triple A.
All of that to say, the Orioles got indisputably stronger with this trade and didn’t part with their elite prospects. They’ll pay Burnes’ $15.6 million salary instead, putting some of that new-ownership money to use. That’s a win. The Brewers, meanwhile, save money, lose their ace and add two MLB-ready 25-year-olds with real upside. That’s not nothing, but it’s not really a win.
Brewers grade: B-
Orioles grade: A
Will Sammon: Burnes is as dedicated to his job as any athlete I’ve been around. To bounce back from a dreadful 2019, he changed everything about his daily and weekly rituals while working with a mental strength coach. Ever since, his yearly production on the mound has been as routine as making a bed in the morning.
The Orioles can rely on Burnes for 200 innings and a top-10 finish for the Cy Young Award. How many pitchers can claim that as a projection? Scouts love him for his tenacity while executives love him for his durability.
On the mound, Burnes operates with a constant chip on his shoulder. At his job, he carries an arrogance with him, like many of the great players tend to do. Those who know him best suggest he’s ready to post a monster season ahead of free agency. The Orioles landed an ace, a former pillar of the Brewers’ consistent recent success.
The Brewers’ maneuvering this offseason strikes me as odd.
Yes, trading away a star before a walk year makes logical sense for a team that operates with a thinner budget than most. They can’t risk losing him for nothing and they can’t repeat the Josh Hader trade from a couple of years ago when they dealt their star closer at the deadline and fell apart during the pennant race.
But Milwaukee had operated in an intriguing way before this move. According to league sources, owner Mark Attanasio beefed up the offer for Rhys Hoskins to land the slugger and the Brewers made a competitive offer to Aroldis Chapman. They had a window here to win and seemed to be doing an admirable job of competing in 2024 while also prioritizing young players. They looked like they were capitalizing on a last hurrah with Burnes and Willy Adames, another free agent after the upcoming season. Now what? The messaging is mixed, at best.
Brewers grade: C+
Orioles grade: A
Eno Sarris: This makes a ton of sense for the Orioles. It’s only one year of Burnes, but that’s a top-three starter in the league paired with two young top-20 starters, at least by my latest rankings. They probably didn’t have a starting spot for Ortiz in the infield, and Hall was a maybe-bullpen, maybe-starter, maybe-bullpen guy even by their own public comments. New ownership, a team coming off a great season — they seized the moment.
This makes a good amount of sense for the Brewers. They weren’t probably going to pay to keep Burnes once his team control expired after this season, and for Burnes they get a couple of assets (and a pick) that might help them beyond this season.
In the minor leagues, Ortiz hit the ball 114.9 mph in 2023, something only 30 major leaguers did in the bigs this past season, and he did it with a better-than-average strikeout rate and good defense. He could end up playing third or second for the Brewers this year, or even be in the mix for shortstop with Bryce Turang if Milwaukee continues to reboot and sends Willy Adames somewhere (Los Angeles?).
On the pitching side, the Brewers get Hall, a lefty who sat 96 mph last year and has two or three really strong secondaries, albeit that velocity came in relief. He’s had command issues in the past but his locations the past two years have been above-average in small samples. Hall is going to get a great shot at joining the major-league rotation from day one this season, and the underlying processes suggest he might be a successful starter at that.
The Orioles probably feel like they protected their best position player assets and turned a bullpen piece into one of the best starters in the league. The Brewers are excited about the future of two young players who will be in Milwaukee past this season. It works.
Brewers grade: B
Orioles grade: A
(Top photo of Burnes: John Fisher / Getty Images)