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Matt Arnold turned expendable players into immediate upgrades with Brewers’ trade deadline moves

In his first deadline as head of baseball operations, Arnold brought in short-term upgrades in a seller-friendly market without giving up key pieces

Milwaukee Brewers v Washington Nationals Photo by Jess Rapfogel/Getty Images

The 2023 MLB trade deadline has come and gone. The Brewers added three new players to their big-league roster: first baseman Carlos Santana, outfielder Mark Canha, and reliever Andrew Chafin. They also swung a pair of minor-league deals, trading Luis Urias for pitching prospect Bradley Blalock and catcher Alex Jackson for right-hander Evan McKendry.

Those moves are not exciting, neither in isolation nor on the whole. However, they represent solid work by general manager Matt Arnold in his first deadline as head of baseball operations.

To understand the Brewers’ deadline action, one must first note the context of the trade market, the state of the roster, and the club’s approach to remaining competitive.

This was a seller-friendly market. Baseball’s new expanded playoff format and the parity among many teams in this year’s standings created a shortage of true sellers. In most seasons, clubs like the San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners, Los Angeles Angels, and the division-rival Chicago Cubs would trade pieces away to reload for next year and beyond. These clubs all have semi-realistic chances of reaching the postseason in this year’s competitive landscape, so they bought instead (the Mariners traded away closer Paul Sewald, but that was more of a counter-building move than a selling one).

Such a market was suboptimal for the Brewers for multiple reasons. They sought to buy and desperately needed offensive help at multiple positions. At the same time, the organization has stressed its desire to remain competitive long-term and has shied away from blockbuster deals requiring it to give away top prospects it envisions as part of its future core.

At recent deadlines, the Brewers have deliberately hung onto players like Jackson Chourio, Sal Frelick, Joey Wiemer, Garrett Mitchell, and Tyler Black. Before that, they did not trade former prospects Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, and Freddy Peralta and have since reaped substantial long-term benefits.

While the Brewers will part with some of their best young talent under the right circumstances (the Christian Yelich trade is a prime example), no standout bats were available this summer for what they deemed a fair price. Such players may not have been available at all for any price. Potential trade candidates like Shohei Ohtani, Luis Robert Jr., Pete Alonso, Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, and Eloy Jimenez all stayed put.

Still, there were available players who represented notable improvements over the status quo in the Brewers’ lineup and in their bullpen. Arnold went to work and acquired three of those players, and he did so without giving up any critical pieces of the club’s future plans.

The Brewers added two bats by acquiring Santana from the division-rival Pittsburgh Pirates and Canha from the New York Mets. Santana has hit at a league-average rate in each of the past two seasons (101 wRC+ since the start of 2022), while Canha posted a slightly above-average line with the Mets this year (107 wRC+).

Neither Santana nor Canha offers much upside at the plate, but they do provide competency at first base and right field. That’s a significant step up for the Brewers, who rank last in baseball in wRC+ at first base (78) and 28th in right field (74).

Arnold sent 18-year-old shortstop Jhonny Severino to Pittsburgh to acquire Santana. While he admitted that it stung to part with the organization’s top 2022 international signing, Severino has not played past rookie ball, and eight of Milwaukee’s top 30 prospects are shortstops, including 2022 first-round pick Eric Brown Jr. They also have Brice Turang in the big leagues as a potential long-term shortstop option.

Next to depart the Milwaukee system was right-hander Justin Jarvis, who went to New York for Canha. The 23-year-old showed well in 14 starts with Double-A Biloxi and was promoted to Triple-A Nashville. However, he remained buried beneath other rotation options on the organizational depth chart, and there are questions regarding how much the pre-tacked baseballs in Double-A contributed to his early success.

Most importantly, Jarvis was eligible for the Rule 5 draft this winter. The Brewers were unlikely to add him to their 40-man roster, at which point another team may claim Jarvis. Rather than risk losing him for nothing in a few months, the Brewers flipped him for a reliable bat to stabilize a glaring hole in the lineup.

The Brewers’ final big-league trade saw them send Peter Strzelecki to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Chafin. Strzelecki’s solid four-pitch arsenal gives him plenty of upside as a reliever, and he is controlled through 2028. However, his recent struggles, along with the rise of Joel Payamps and Elvis Peguero as high-leverage relievers, pushed him into a reduced role and eventually off the big-league roster.

The Brewers needed left-handed relief after Justin Wilson suffered a lat strain last week, and Chafin provides it. His 4.19 ERA is his worst since 2020, but his strong track record and encouraging peripherals indicate he could be in for a productive stretch run. Even if Strzelecki realizes his potential in Arizona, the Brewers’ knack for developing overlooked arms into valuable relievers minimizes the chance of long-term damage to the bullpen without him.

Arnold also swung a pair of minor-league trades, including a deal at the buzzer to send Urias to the Boston Red Sox for Blalock. Urias hit just .145/.299/.236 in 68 plate appearances after returning from a hamstring injury. He was demoted to Triple-A at the start of July and looked like a non-tender candidate this winter.

Rather than cut Urias for nothing, the Brewers opened the possibility of extracting future value from him in the form of Blalock. The 22-year-old features a mid-90s fastball, slider, and curveball that all have the potential to be above-average pitches. He has shown well in his return from Tommy John surgery, posting a 2.19 ERA and 3.36 FIP in 11 starts between Low-A and High-A.

Blalock is Rule 5 eligible this winter, but he has the kind of profile the Brewers could fast-track to the majors. He could start in Biloxi and join the 40-man roster by the November cut-off date.

Every deadline move shared the common trait of Arnold trading away a player without a clear future in Milwaukee for a player who fills a need on the current roster or could provide value down the line. Faced with a suboptimal market, the Brewers GM took advantage of the few opportunities available and orchestrated several trades that struck a balance between improving the 2023 team and maintaining the club’s chances at long-term competitiveness.