With the trade deadline just over 24 hours away, the Brewers swung perhaps the most stunning deal of the summer. On Monday afternoon, Milwaukee dealt closer Josh Hader to the San Diego Padres in exchange for Taylor Rogers, Dinelson Lamet, Esteury Ruiz and Robert Gasser.
Hader had been the subject of trade rumors for years, so it was not surprising when Ken Rosenthal speculated last night that the star reliever could finally be on the move.
However, speculation does not guarantee a deal will happen, so it was still jolting to see a first-place team trade its star closer.
That doesn’t mean the Brewers are selling. David Stearns confirmed that the deal was a way for the Brewers to extend their competitive window by adding pieces for the future without compromising the current big-league roster.
Some have suspected that Hader’s salary and recent performance played a role in the decision to move him now. He recently coughed up 12 earned runs over 4 1⁄3 innings from July 4 to July 15. His salary is projected to increase to at least $15 million in his final year of arbitration next season.
However, it seems unlikely that these were true driving factors for multiple reasons.
First, Hader was already expensive for a reliever, especially one employed by a small-market club that refuses to stretch its payroll too far beyond the $130 million mark. His salary is $11 million this year, making him the second-highest-paid player on the roster behind Christian Yelich. If the Brewers were that concerned with clearing their financial obligation to Hader, they would have traded him a year ago, if not sooner.
Second, Hader’s recent struggles can be chalked up to poor command rather than the quality of his stuff. That isn’t a first-time issue, creating optimism that he can get back on track.
Hader was due to become a free agent after next season, and it was all but guaranteed that he would earn a lucrative contract from another club. The Brewers benefit long-term from receiving controllable talent in exchange for 1 1⁄2 years of Hader instead of watching him leave for nothing.
However, that doesn’t mean it was a primary goal that motivated the Brewers to move Hader. There’s a distinction between making a trade to obtain certain benefits and accepting a solid package that also happens to feature such benefits.
The Brewers never actively tried to deal Hader. David Stearns confirmed that the club made no outgoing calls to other clubs concerning their closer.
David Stearns on the reports the Brewers had been listening on Josh Hader:— Todd Rosiak (@Todd_Rosiak) August 1, 2022
"We have never made an outgoing call on Josh Hader. In this case, we had a couple very aggressive teams pursue Josh, and we made the deal with San Diego."
Instead, the Brewers were always willing to listen, as they should with every player in the organization. If they found a deal to their liking that made sense from both short-term and long-term perspectives, they would pull the trigger. If not, they would continue to employ the best reliever in baseball.
It wasn’t until now that they received an offer featuring the balance of prospects and immediate impact players they sought. The key to this deal is that the Brewers did not receive four prospects in return. They got two controllable young players and two pitchers who can help them continue to win now.
The 23-year-old Gasser is a left-hander selected in the second round of last year’s draft. While he doesn’t have overpowering stuff, he has added some velocity to his fastball and slider, which has helped him post an excellent 30.5% strikeout rate in 18 starts in High-A this year. He also possesses a quality changeup.
Ruiz, also 23, began his season in Double-A, but a big performance earned him a promotion to Triple-A and eventually the big leagues while boosting his prospect stock. He has slashed .333/.467/.560 (165 wRC+) this year between the two minor-league levels while dramatically improving his walk and strikeout rates. He has also demonstrated his blazing speed in center field and on the basepaths, stealing 60 bases in 77 games.
According to MLB Pipeline, Gasser and Ruiz enter the organization’s Top 10 prospects at No. 8 and No. 9, respectively. The Brewers assigned Gasser to Double-A Biloxi and Ruiz to Triple-A Nashville, and David Stearns said that the latter could soon see time with the big-league team.
Meanwhile, the Brewers added two new arms in the bullpen to fill the hole left by Hader’s departure.
Rogers is no stranger to high-leverage situations, racking up 78 career saves and 77 holds. He began the year as the Padres closer, but recent struggles prompted San Diego to search for an upgrade at the back end of their bullpen. The veteran’s 4.35 ERA is not very appealing, but a 2.35 FIP and 3.70 DRA paint a more optimistic picture.
Like Hader, Rogers is a left-hander, but his money pitch is a slider that he throws over 50% of the time. It has held opponents to a .245 wOBA this season with a 38.1% whiff rate. Most of the damage has come against his sinker, which has gotten hit to the tune of a .308 average and .353 wOBA.
Rogers figures to step into a little-inning role in Milwaukee. Whether he serves as the team’s new closer, as a setup man for a promoted Devin Williams, or in a more flexible role that allows Craig Counsell to play matchups is yet to be determined.
While Rogers will be a crucial piece in the revamped Milwaukee bullpen down the stretch, Lamet is the true wild card in this deal. The right-hander has always possessed electric stuff and finished fourth in the National League Cy Young Award voting in 2020, but injuries have forced him into a relief role and reduced his effectiveness.
In 13 games this season, the 30-year-old has limped to a 9.49 ERA and a 14.5% walk rate. His fastball velocity has fallen since his breakout 2020 campaign, and he has lost a significant amount of movement on his slider.
Nonetheless, there are still encouraging signs that point toward Lamet’s upside. He still throws hard, averaging 95.4 mph with his fastball this season, and opponents have whiffed on 50% of their swings against his slider. Lament has also continued to post a strong 26.9% strikeout rate over the past two seasons despite clearly diminished stuff. If the Brewers can help him rediscover his peak slider and regain some velocity, they could have another dominant high-leverage weapon on their hands.
Neither Rogers nor Lamet has the ceiling that Hader does, but if both prove to be legitimate late-inning arms, it gives the club more depth and flexibility in the bullpen than they had with Hader for a similar price. Meanwhile, Williams’ continued excellence maintains stability, and the possibility of Freddy Peralta or Adrian Houser joining the relief corps when the pitching staff returns to full health could provide an additional boost.
However, Rogers and Lamet are not sure bets to perform, and therein lies the Brewers’ gamble. They’ve bet on their pitching development system before, but this may be the most extreme case. In a best-case scenario, this trade improves the long-term outlook of the organization without negatively impacting their chances of winning a World Series this season. If Rogers and Lamet fail to produce, the Brewers will be left with a shaky bullpen and will face serious criticism for trading their All-Star closer in the middle of a contending season.
David Stearns and Matt Arnold are taking a risk, but it’s a calculated one. Now the work begins to turn Rogers and Lamet into capable replacements for Hader.