Who is the most valuable player on the Milwaukee Brewers?
When taking into account all the different factors — current performance, track record, age, position, contract status — which member of the Brew Crew would be the most coveted in a trade, and bring back the greatest return?
With Christian Yelich coming off of a down year and $200+ mil now owed to him, the mantel of most valuable asset for the Cream City Nine has likely shifted to one of the club’s emerging young hurlers — Brandon Woodruff.
From humble beginnings as an 11th-round pick in the 2014 MLB Draft, Woodruff has fashioned himself into one of baseball’s “unicorns” — a cost-controlled “ace” starting pitcher. Since debuting in the big leagues in 2017, Woody has now worked 280.2 innings with a 3.66 ERA and 3.31 FIP, totaling 10.0 K/9 versus just 2.4 BB/9. He’s improved his ERA+, WHIP, and K/BB ratio in each of his parts of four seasons at the MLB level, and after looking like an ascendant pitcher during an injury-interrupted 2019 season, Woodruff established himself as one of the top hurlers in baseball during the abbreviated 2020 pandemic campaign.
Woody tied league leaders with 13 starts in 2020 and was the only Brewers’ pitcher to throw enough innings to qualify, tallying 73.2 frames. He finished the year with a 3.05 ERA, or a 149 ERA+, which was 9th-best among National League starters. His 3.20 Field Independent Pitching mark translated to a 71 FIP- and his 3.33 Deserved Run Average to a 69 DRA-, suggesting that his true performance this past season was roughly 30% more effective than the league-average pitcher. Woodruff finished the year with the Senior Circuit’s seventh-best strikeout rate (11.1 K/9), the sixth-lowest walk rate (2.2 BB/9), and the fifth-best K/BB ratio (5.06).
The “stuff” that propels Woody to those results continues to improve, too. His fastball velocity has bumped up each season he’s been in the big leagues, popping the glove at an average of 97.1 MPH this summer. Among qualified starters in baseball, that tied Woodruff for the fourth-firmest average fastball velo with Dinelson Lamet and Gerrit Cole. Brandon leaned even more heavily on his excellent sinker this season, throwing it 30.6% of the time and generating more value with the pitch (+9.3 weighted sinker runs) than any other qualified pitcher’s sinker in 2020. His slider continued to rate well (+2.7 wSL) and for the first time in his career, the changeup graded as a better-than-average offering (+0.1 wCH). With a plurality of offerings and movement profiles, Woodruff was able to neutralize both left-handed hitters (.256 wOBA) and righty batters (.278 wOBA) with great aplomb.
Woodruff does more than just miss bats, too. He controls contact well, with Statcast rankings placing him in the 79th percentile in terms of average exit velocity and the 67th percentile in hard contact allowed. He was in the 80th percentile when it comes to walk rates and limiting free passes, and his expected batting average, expected wOBA, and expected ERA all ranked in the 84th percentile or better. When batters do put the ball in play against Woody, they tend to beat it into the dirt — his 49.4% groundball rate this past season was the 12th-best among qualifiers.
So why would the Brewers want to trade Brandon Woodruff? Well they almost surely don’t, but it is a possibility that Slingin’ David Stearns and his deputy Matt Arnold have to at least entertain. Woodruff was healthy this past season but has dealt with a few injury issues during his brief MLB career, mostly relating to oblique troubles. At 27, he’s a few years older than someone like Corbin Burnes or Freddy Peralta, and with reserve club control already running through the end of his age-31 season, he is not exactly an obvious extension candidate. He’s also eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter as a Super Two player, and though his $3 mil projection for 2021 is reasonable enough, that salary figures to increase exponentially in the coming years if he can sustain success. For a team that constantly reminds their fans how they limited by a “small market,” that stuff matters.
If the Brewers want to compete in 2021, they’ll need to add multiple offensive weapons weapons to their lineup. Or, if they decide to take a step back and re-tool for 2022 and beyond, they will have to add some impact talent to their barren minor league pipeline. Trading away Brandon Woodruff could be Milwaukee’s easiest avenue to addressing either of those scenarios, given the way that pitching is always coveted around baseball.
Under the current regime, this franchise has had a lot better results when it comes to developing pitchers than it has had with position players. Might it be worth considering to deal away Brandon Woodruff to upgrade the franchise’s offensive depth, while making a bet on their pitching development system to create a suitable replacement from within?
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball Savant