The Milwaukee Brewers did not execute many major moves during this past offseason, and the one which was arguably most significant took place way back in November. Before Thanksgiving, Slingin’ David Stearns engineered a swap with the San Diego Padres that sent right-hander Zach Davies and outfielder Trent Grisham out west in exchange for infielder Luis Urias, left-hander Eric Lauer, and a player to be named later or cash. Fans of the Cream City Nine have been waiting for months with bated breath to find out what the final piece of that deal would be, but earlier today it was reported by Adam McCalvy that the swap was actually completed back in March. The Padres sent Milwaukee some dollars and cents.
A little baseball news: In March, the Brewers and Padres finalized the PTBNL/cash portion of the pre-Thanksgiving trade that sent Zach Davies and Trent Grisham to SD for Luis Urías and Eric Lauer. The Brewers received cash to complete the deal. (h/t @johnnyc1952 for the nudge.)— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) May 27, 2020
We don’t have any live MLB baseball or much else to talk about right now in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, so let’s use this opportunity to revisit the trade. In terms of the players given up, there is no doubt that the two men dealt away by Milwaukee have been more successful at the MLB level than the two men that they received. Zach Davies debuted with the Brewers back in September of 2015 and during his five years in Milwaukee, he established himself as one of the better starting pitchers in the history of the organization. Only 25 pitchers have logged more frames for the Brewers over the years than Zach’s 614.1, and his 111 starts ranks 21st. His 3.91 ERA checks in at tied for 16th-best (with Bill Parsons), but when taking into consideration the environment during which he pitched, Davies’ adjusted ERA+ of 110 stands as the 6th-best in franchise annals, right in front of Yovani Gallardo. Zach’s RA9-WAR of 9.6 rates him as the 18th-most valuable pitcher among all-time Brewers.
Because he is a command artist who relies on generating soft contact rather than missing bats, peripheral statistics like Field Independent Pitching and Deserved Run Average never quite supported Davies’ level of success. Maybe that means he’s due for regression; or perhaps his sustained success is undervalued simply because of the way he’s gone about his business on the mound. Either way, it will be the Padres job to find out. Davies agreed to a $5.25 mil arbitration salary for 2020 before the coronavirus changed things, but he’ll still be able to reach free agency after 2021.
Eric Lauer will ostensibly replace Davies in Milwaukee’s starting rotation, and the hope is that he’ll provide similar value to Zach while pitching for the league minimum in 2020 before becoming arbitration-eligible for the first time as a Super Two player during the upcoming offseason. The left-hander has not quite reached the level of success that Davies has enjoyed, but he’s nonetheless been a cromulent back-end starter for parts of the last two seasons in San Diego. Lauer has made 53 appearances (52 starts) in the big leagues since the start of 2018, tossing 261.2 innings with a 4.40 ERA, or a slightly below-average 92 ERA+. Like Davies, Eric is considered to have more of a “pitchability” profile, though his average fastball of 92.0 MPH is a few ticks firmer than Zach’s. Lauer has missed quite a few more bats (8.2 K/9 versus 6.4 K/9), but he’s also issued a much higher volume of free passes (3.3 BB/9 versus 2.6 BB/9) and coughed up long balls at a greater rate (1.2 HR/9 versus 1.0 HR/9) despite pitching him home games in run-stifling Petco Park. 2020 is Lauer’s age-25 season, whereas Davies would be pitching in his age-27 right now.
It’s easy to remember outfielder Trent Grisham for his glaring late-game fielding gaffe during the 2019 Wild Card matchup against Washington, but one shouldn’t overlook the tremendous body of work that he put together during the whole of the previous campaign. Grisham’s career started slow out of the gates following his selection at #15 overall in the 2015 MLB Draft, showing an uncanny ability to draw walks but not much else during his ascent up the minor league ladder. That all changed in 2019, when he went back to the unorthodox golf-style grip on the bat that he utilized during his days as a prep player. The patience stayed, but his strikeout rate also dropped precipitously and he began tapping into his power potential like never before. The southpaw swinger — who hit only a combined 19 home runs during his first four professional seasons — mashed 13 dingers while batting .254/.371/.504 (150 wRC+) in 63 games for Double-A Biloxi before earning a call-up to Triple-A. He slugged another baker’s dozen worth of home runs for the Missions, but it only took him 34 games to do so as he hit an outrageous .381/.471/.776 (194 wRC+) across 158 plate appearances.
Grisham reached the big leagues by the start of August and appeared in 51 games down the stretch, holding his own with a .231/.328/.410 slash line (92 wRC+) along with six home runs. He was awarded Milwaukee’s Minor League Player of the Year award following the season, but with Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, and Ryan Braun in the fold (and the later signing of Avisail Garcia), Grisham was deemed expendable and dealt to San Diego. The steps forward that he’s taken with the bat coupled with his defensive ability at a premium position in center field has made the 23 year old a popular breakout candidate, and he looked poised to win the starting center field job for the Padres before baseball shut down mid-spring.
While many consider Grisham to be a player on the rise, Luis Urias was long a highly-touted prospect who has seen his luster has dim a little bit since reaching the majors. He was considered to be a top-40 prospect leaguewide by both Baseball America and MLB Pipeline ahead of the 2018 and 2019 seasons on the strength of a hit tool that has, at times, received 70 grades on the 20-80 scouting scale. Urias is a career .308 hitter across more than 2,400 minor league plate appearances and has generally shown outstanding bat-to-ball skills, punching out in fewer than 13% of his turns at the bat. He’s been patient, too, putting together a 10.7% walk rate and a .397 on-base percentage. But the diminutive Urias — who stands at 5’9” and weighs 185 lbs — never showed much pop with the bat, prompting a swing change in 2018. He added a leg kick and launched 19 home runs during 73 games in Triple-A in 2019 — the same number of home runs he had hit during his first five professional season combined — though that comes with the caveats of playing with a juiced baseball in the outrageous offensive environment that was the 2019 Pacific Coast League (where the average team scored 5.85 runs per game).
A significant increase in strikeouts accompanied Urias’ power surge in Triple-A, and while those swing-and-miss tendencies carried over to the big league level, the additional oomph has not. After a 12-game cup of coffee in 2018, Urias got his first extended taste of MLB action in 2019, collecting 249 plate appearances across 71 games. But he struggled to a much larger extent than Grisham did, managing only a .223/.329/.326 slash line with four homers (81 wRC+). He struck out in 22.5% of his trips to the plate, a little shy of double his rate in the minors. Some scouts remain skeptical about whether or not he’ll ever hit for much power, leg kick or not. He has plenty of time to change those minds, though, as he turns just 23 years old in a few days.
Whereas Grisham lined up at a position of surplus for Milwaukee, Urias’ most compelling trait may be his ability to play shortstop and push incumbent Orlando Arcia for the everyday job. Arcia has been a major disappointment to this point four seasons into his own career, and he now faces a legitimate challenger to his spot on the diamond. Urias may not make as many flashy plays as Arcia has over his years at the six, but he should settle in as a steady defender at the position. It won’t take much to be an offensive improvement over Orlando, who has been one of the game’s worst regular hitters for the past several seasons.
This was truly a challenge trade, with both sides giving up a talented young player at a position of surplus to gain one at a position of need. It will surely be interesting to follow the career arcs of Grisham and Urias to see which one winds up providing more value to his team going forward.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference