Brewers President of Baseball Operations David Stearns has often described his strategy for the club as a three-fold approach: acquire, develop, and retain talent.
Under Stearns, the organization has excelled on the acquisition and development fronts. Since 2017, they have finished above .500 in four of five seasons, cracked the 95-win mark twice, and made four consecutive postseason appearances. They have produced a three-headed monster atop their rotation in Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, and Freddy Peralta and built one of the best late-inning duos in baseball in Josh Hader and Devin Williams.
In terms of retaining talent, the Brewers extended Christian Yelich on the largest contract in franchise history and locked up Peralta prior to his 2021 breakout. However, many are wondering what moves might be coming next for some of the organization’s other core players. As such, it was only natural when MLB Trade Rumors recently discussed if Burnes could be the next to ink a deal to remain in Milwaukee long-term.
Burnes, who is entering his age-27 season, is under club control through the 2024 season through arbitration. The right-hander recently won the National League ERA title and Cy Young Award after crafting one of the best seasons for a starting pitcher in franchise history. Among Brewers starters to throw at least 150 innings in a season, Burnes’ award-winning campaign ranks first in FIP (1.63), strikeout rate (35.6%), and home runs allowed per nine innings (0.38). It ranks second in ERA (2.43), strikeout to walk ratio (6.88), and fWAR (7.5).
MLB Trade Rumors opined that extending Burnes should be a priority for the Brewers and that they should pony up the money to get it done. Indeed, the Brewers may have already gauged Burnes’ interest in remaining with the organization long-term, and if they haven’t, they should do so post-lockout.
However, it’s best to assume that the two parties will not come together on a deal. In fact, extending Burnes should not be at or near the top of Stearns and General Manager Matt Arnold’s to-do list.
After his dominant 2021 campaign, Burnes would (and should) be asking for plenty of money. Whether he would be worth a large contract is not an issue. Nearly all of Burnes’ ERA estimators and advanced metrics were even better than his league-leading ERA. His arsenal consists of five plus pitches, including an elite cutter, curveball, and slider, the former of which sits in the upper 90s on the radar gun. The 27-year-old’s talent and dominance on the mound are legit.
However, Burnes’ camp would likely point to those same attributes and encourage him to go year-to-year in arbitration and then hit free agency in search of a lucrative deal. If the right-hander continues to post strong numbers and reaches the open market just as he turns 30 years old, he could secure a deal that approaches Gerrit Cole’s record-setting contract for a pitcher.
What about the Brewers’ perspective? Depending on their budget moving forward, the front office may have to decide if extending a player already under club control for a few more years is truly the best use of their financial resources.
How much spending money the organization actually has at its disposal is always a hotly-contested topic of conversation during the offseason, but the fact is that under owner Mark Attanasio, the Brewers have never run a payroll exceeding about $135 million. After setting that franchise record in 2019, the club promptly slashed its spending even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
MLB Trade Rumors points out that the organization has money to spend; only Yelich and Peralta have guaranteed deals beyond next season. Kolten Wong could join them if the club picks up his 2023 option. However, there are some other factors worth considering from a financial standpoint.
It should be noted that the Brewers will have numerous players in arbitration for the next several seasons. These include Josh Hader, Brandon Woodruff, Devin Williams, Willy Adames, Eric Lauer, Adrian Houser, and Keston Hiura if he can get his career back on track. Each of these players will earn progressively more each year.
Even with these coming raises, the Brewers will likely still have room for a Burnes extension in their budget. However, would that money be better spent elsewhere?
Extension or not, the Brewers already have their ace for a few more seasons. They don’t have a strong offense. While their pitiful performance in a first-round playoff exit a few months ago painted an exaggerated picture of their shortcomings, the offense’s 91 wRC+ was by far the lowest of any postseason team. Their 97 wRC+ after the acquisition of Willy Adames was a notable improvement, but a World Series contender should still be putting a better lineup than that on the field.
If the Brewers extend Burnes, will his increased salary limit the ability of Stearns and Arnold to pursue bats in free agency? If so, are the Brewers better off extending him or pushing all the chips in for the next three seasons before letting him walk in free agency?
Maybe the budget will increase, allowing them to do both. But given how much money elite starters receive on the open market and how the Brewers have budgeted in recent years, an extension would seemingly go against the odds.
It’s possible that the organization already decided on which players to keep around past 2024. Yelich’s extension runs through 2028, and Peralta could remain in Milwaukee through 2026 if both of his club options are exercised. Stearns and Arnold could very well be planning to build a new cast of supporting characters around these two once players like Burnes, Woodruff, Hader, and Adames depart.
Not only might Burnes wish to reach free agency as soon as possible, but there is also a case to be made that extending him isn’t the best direction for the Brewers. They already have him under club control for a few more years, and they ought to be most focused on winning a World Series during that time.
There’s no reason not to approach Burnes about a potential extension. Maybe he shocks the baseball world and forgoes potential future earnings for immediate security. Just don’t count on it happening.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs
Payroll figures courtesy of Spotrac