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Crowded Brewers’ bullpen mix could prompt trades

Corbin Burnes is all the rage in trade rumors, but could the Brewers trade some relievers instead?

Wild Card Series - Arizona Diamondbacks v Milwaukee Brewers - Game One Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

It’s been a slow offseason across Major League Baseball, but the hot stove should heat up soon. The recent signings of Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto should soon release the floodgates holding up the rest of the market.

This also extends to the Brewers, whom many view as a team to watch due to the possibility of outgoing trades from their big-league roster. Milwaukee has already flipped Mark Canha, Adrian Houser, and Tyrone Taylor, and Corbin Burnes remains a popular subject of trade speculation.

While Burnes and Willy Adames have garnered the most attention as trade candidates, the Brewers may be more likely to deal from their bullpen as part of their counterbuilding strategy.

A deep and well-managed bullpen is vital to success in a 162-game season. The Brewers have excelled on that front by loading up on talented arms and employing an all-hands-on-deck approach behind elite closers like Josh Hader and Devin Williams.

By rotating relievers between the big leagues and Triple-A based on recent workload and availability, the Brewers keep their bullpen fresh and effective throughout the year. However, the current makeup of their bullpen does not offer that degree of flexibility.

The Brewers currently have four relievers on their 40-man roster (Joel Payamps, Bryse Wilson, J.B. Bukauskas, and Thyago Vieira) who are out of options, meaning they cannot be freely sent to the minor leagues throughout the season. Concurrently, most of the relievers with options remaining are the most impactful, including Devin Williams, Abner Uribe, and Hoby Milner.

The Brewers also acquired Taylor Clarke from the Kansas City Royals earlier this month. Clarke has one option year remaining, but it’s unlikely they’ll give him a raise in arbitration to pitch in the minor leagues. He projects as a regular member of the bullpen.

Milwaukee has typically resolved these situations by trading away non-optionable relievers. Last winter, they traded Justin Topa to the Seattle Mariners for lottery-ticket pitching prospect Joseph Hernandez. Topa had long been a promising arm and immediately became a quality setup man for Seattle, but there was no room for him in a loaded Brewers’ bullpen.

Due to their limited track records, Bukauskas and Vieira are more likely to be waived than traded. Wilson and Payamps could be on the trading block.

Wilson was an unsung hero in 2023, filling every role from long reliever to setup man while posting a 2.58 ERA in 76 23 innings. However, his xERA, FIP, and DRA were all roughly league-average, and his 18.5% whiff rate ranked in the fifth percentile of pitchers. The Brewers could sell high on Wilson’s three remaining years of control and backfill the bulk relief role with Aaron Ashby, Joe Ross, or Janson Junk.

Payamps’ performance as Williams’ primary setup man was more supported by advanced metrics. He limited hard contact to a 33.7% rate while posting strong strikeout (26.8%) and walk (5.6%) rates. However, Uribe and Trevor Megill received more high-leverage innings down the stretch and could step into his role moving forward.

Trading Williams, who has two years of control remaining, is the boldest move the Brewers could make. If they prefer to avoid that extreme, the next best choice may be trading Elvis Peguero.

With an elite sinker suited for high-leverage work and two option years remaining, Peguero may seem like a safe bet to return. However, the Brewers could prefer to move him over other relievers for a few reasons.

Peguero has the ingredients to break out as a dominant reliever in the long run. He posted an elite 34.2% chase rate and a strong 31.1% whiff rate in 2023. However, he ran a 10.3% walk rate and sometimes caught too much of the plate with his sinker when ahead in the count, preventing him from putting away hitters.

Peguero might be an expendable luxury in a deep Milwaukee bullpen. Meanwhile, his untapped upside and five remaining years of control could motivate teams to offer a solid package for a reliever. Trading Peguero could strike a balance that allows the Brewers to cash in on their bullpen depth while keeping Williams.

Because relievers are notoriously inconsistent from year to year, there’s always a case to be made for selling high on them. The Brewers have a glut in their bullpen, excel at turning scrap-heap additions like Clarke into solid pitchers, and always look for controllable talent and upgrades at other positions. With all that in mind, don’t be surprised if they trade away one or multiple relievers before spring training.