Get ready for trade rumors, free agent signings, and country music baseball puns from Nashville as baseball’s Winter Meetings begin Monday. If you’re unfamiliar, the Winter Meetings do serve a purpose of holding actual meetings with the sport’s leaders and decision makers on every topic you can think of.
An ancillary event of the three days is the hot stove – wheeling and dealing players, wooing free agents, mending relationships with trade partners – it almost sounds like closing time at a honky tonk.
Matt Arnold and company will be listening on ways to improve their ballclub. 2023 has already been an extraordinarily busy offseason in Madison, the Winter Meetings present a chance for the team on the field to take the headlines.
- Who’s on first?
No, it’s not Abbott & Costello – it’s truly the biggest question facing the Brewers in 2024. Right now, the depth chart features Jake Bauers, a utility journeyman with a sub .700 OPS and 35% strikeout rate, and Owen Miller, who cooled after a hot May to a .524 OPS over his last 50 games.
Could a reunion with Carlos Santana be in the works? He’ll turn 38 in the first week of the regular season, and still would be the oldest player on the Brewers in 2024. Father Time is undefeated, but he did just enjoy his best season since the “juiced ball” year in 2019.
His switch-hitting ability helps his case, but a projected salary of $7M means he could find that on the open market elsewhere.
- Who’s in the crowded outfield picture?
The outfield is packed, to say the least. Joey Wiemer played the most games for the Brewers in the outfield last year, and he didn’t make the Opening Day roster. Due to a torn shoulder labrum, Garrett Mitchell was limited to 19 games but was electric before the injury.
Sal Frelick arrived in thrilling fashion in July, and still appeared in the third-most games in the cleanup spot. Tyrone Taylor dealt with elbow issues all season, but emerged in the final month of the season to lead the team with five homers and a .912 OPS. Yet, that’s just one month of a full season for a homegrown player entering his 13th year in the organization.
And we haven’t even mentioned two of the most important stars of the Brewers: Christian Yelich and Jackson Chourio. So what’s a GM to do? Jahmai Jones, Blake Perkins, and Chris Roller are still on the 40-man too. Simply put, there’s a surplus of outfielders in the Brewers’ organization to orchestrate a deal from to help with the first question of this article.
- Can you find some right-handed power?
The Brewers hit 100 homers as a team from the right side in 2023, ranking 22nd in the bigs. A season prior, they were 6th with 135 dingers from righties. Willy Adames was nearly a quarter of those with 24 to lead the team, with William Contreras next on the list with 17. The Brewers believe Contreras can develop more pull-side power and fix his average launch angle — which has quietly decreased the last two seasons.
So that leaves Wiemer and Taylor next on the power list from the right side, and with Chourio’s imminent promotion, their footing is not that solid for the 26-man roster.
Adames has been a subject for trade talks since last offseason, but the Brewers have every reason to keep him with their current roster construction.
- Who’s your fifth starter?
Maybe this is more of a spring training question, but we can see how the Brewers are feeling about their rotation for the 2024 season – regardless if they trade Corbin Burnes (more on him in a moment).
Let’s say for this example, they keep Burnes to start the year and your rotation goes: Burnes-Peralta-Houser-Rea-??? Prospect lefty Robert Gasser seems to be in the picture, and would need to be added to the 40-man ahead of a debut. Reporting from The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal suggests the Brewers and Wade Miley are still thinking about a reunion after Wade declined a mutual option for $10M.
Then there’s Aaron Ashby, who missed all of 2023 with shoulder issues. He was pitching in AAA at the end of the season, and his velocity had not returned, sitting at 91-92 MPH – a stark contrast from his 94-96 he showed in 2022. He’s a “wait-and-see” candidate for spring training to determine his role this season.
Then there’s the other example where Burnes is traded and you may need more help, which leads us to the final question.
- What are you going to do with Corbin Burnes?
There are three doors to choose from in regards to your ace of the staff in his final year of team control.
Door #1: You keep Burnes for his final year of arbitration. (Projected to earn about $15M according to Matt Swartz’s model on MLB Trade Rumors)
Principal Owner Mark Attanasio has made it clear during his tenure as owner, he is not interested in “rebuilding.” And with the savings from Mark Canha, Brandon Woodruff, and Rowdy Tellez off the roster certainly makes it easier to absorb the raise due to Burnes for the 2024 season.
Quite simply, the Brewers need Burnes to be contenders in the division, and if you are afraid of the Brewers “not getting a return” on Burnes, there’s still the qualifying offer ahead of his free agency in 2025. The Brewers would receive a sandwich pick (between the 1st and 2nd rounds) in return for Burnes signing elsewhere.
Door #2: You trade Burnes this week to receive high-level prospect returns.
Teams are always looking for pitching. Always. A trade probably wouldn’t happen during the Winter Meetings for a few reasons: First, free agents Blake Snell, Jordan Montgomery, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Yoshinobu Yamamoto headline the market. Teams probably wouldn’t start trading until those names are off the board.
Also, Burnes’ free agent class next year is loaded: Shane Bieber, Walker Buehler, Max Fried, Tyler Glasnow, to name a few. These names will be tossed around for trades – specifically Bieber and Glasnow coming from small markets. Those returns could set the market for Burnes because he has generated more fWAR (15.5) since 2021 than those two combined (15.2) due to injuries.
Door #3: You wait until the trade deadline to re-assess.
There are still plenty of question marks about this team’s offense this season. There is a lot of youth all over the diamond with Chourio (20), Frelick (24), Turang (24), Mitchell (25), Wiemer (25), and Contreras (26) leading the core of position players. A new freshman, four sophomores, and practically a senior if we’re talking college basketball terms.
But with the expanded playoffs, all you have to do is get in, and if the Brewers are competitive enough to be in the playoff picture by the deadline, maybe they keep Burnes. Or they hear an offer from a pitching-desperate team deep in a playoff hunt that piques Matt Arnold’s interest.
Carlos Rodriguez and Jacob Misiorowski are next in the Brewers homegrown pipeline of star pitchers and are entering a vital year of development to be ready for the 2025 season. Thus the Brewers would be ready to absorb a trade rather quickly – perhaps even in the middle of a season.
In closing, remember to check those Twitter handles this week, don’t get duped by fake accounts reporting trades. And always double-check your spelling if you’re reporting on the biggest free agent of the season.
Dominic Cotroneo is the host of WTMJ’s Brewers All-Access podcast and Brewers Extra Innings during the regular season. You can follow him on “X” at @Dom_Cotroneo for Brewers coverage all offseason long.