The Brewers have not made any flashy moves this offseason, but the club has been relatively active compared to other teams in a slow winter. In addition to re-signing starting pitchers Colin Rea and Wade Miley, Matt Arnold and company have swung seven trades in a two-month span.
Those deals have come in different shapes. Some have embodied the counterbuilding strategy that the Brewers have embraced in recent years, in which they trade away expendable players on expiring contracts to bring in controllable talent that will soon be MLB-ready. The Brewers shipped out Mark Canha, Adrian Houser, and Tyrone Taylor for pitching prospects, packaging the latter two in the same deal.
The remaining trades seem to run counter to the approach of regularly replenishing the farm system. The Brewers have traded away more prospects than they’ve acquired this winter. Milwaukee received Blake Holub for Canha and Coleman Crow for Houser and Taylor while trading away Hendry Mendez, Robert Moore, Jace Avina, Brian Sanchez, Cam Devanney, Ryan Brady, and Justin Chambers in other deals.
Many of those names catch the attention of those who closely follow Brewers prospects. MLB Pipelined ranked each of Mendez, Moore, and Avina within the organization’s top 30 prospects when they were traded. Sanchez was a well-regarded international signing in February 2023. Chambers was a heralded high school pitcher whom the Brewers drafted in June and signed for $547,000.
In exchange for these prospects, the Brewers have not received a single player with a track record of MLB success.
Oliver Dunn, acquired for Mendez and Moore, is 26 years old and has yet to reach the big leagues. Jake Bauers, acquired for Avina and Sanchez, has a career .663 OPS, including a .693 mark with the New York Yankees last year. Taylor Clarke, the return for Devanney and Brady, owns a career 5.03 ERA and is coming off his worst season since his rookie year. Bryan Hudson, whom the Brewers acquired on Wednesday for Chambers, debuted in 2023 and has 8 2⁄3 MLB innings to his name.
It may seem like Arnold is giving away prospects for bad players, but there’s a consistent strategy behind these moves.
Firstly, each acquisition could contribute more to the big-league roster in 2024 than one might initially assume.
Dunn broke out last year with the Philadelphia Phillies’ Double-A affiliate, belting 21 home runs after never hitting more than seven in a season. He continued his strong showing in the Arizona Fall League, posting a 1.071 OPS and winning the league’s Breakout Player of the Year award. As a left-handed hitting second baseman with power, he could challenge Brice Turang for reps at the keystone after Turang’s alarming rookie season.
Bauers’ slash line with the Yankees was nothing to write home about, but the former prospect tapped into his power potential after making a series of swing changes. He smashed 12 home runs in 272 plate appearances. His .485 xwOBA on contact and 18.7% barrel rate were both elite and demonstrate that he crushed the ball as well as anyone when he made contact. Bauers is a candidate to hit 30-plus homers as a regular at first base.
Clarke has excellent breaking stuff that he refined further last year. An ineffective fastball has been his undoing. If the Brewers can help him improve his fastball shape and utilization, he could be an impact reliever. Milwaukee has had ample success with these kinds of profiles in recent years.
Hudson’s stuff might be more promising than Clarke’s. His fastball averages 92 mph and tops out at 96, but Hudson stands 6-foot-8 and strides 7.3 feet from the rubber as he delivers the baseball. This means he releases the ball much closer to home plate than the average pitcher, so his perceived velocity is nearly two mph higher than his radar gun readings. He posted a 35.7% strikeout rate and a 46.7% ground ball rate in Triple-A last year.
Secondly, while the prospects given up in return have reputations as stellar athletes, most were buried in an increasingly deep system.
Mendez and Moore have seen their developments stall and are coming off underwhelming seasons with the Class A-Advanced Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. The former may require an overhaul of his swing. Avina has elite power but has struck out at alarming rates in the low minors. Devanney turns 27 next season, and his power took a step back last year. Chambers is recovering from Tommy John surgery and is several years away from the big leagues.
These trades add players with skills that can help the Brewers in the infield and bullpen in 2024 and beyond. Meanwhile, Milwaukee has held onto every young player that projects as part of their developing MLB core. It’s a similar strategy to the one that Arnold employed at the trade deadline when he parted with Jhonny Peralta and Justin Jarvis to acquire Carlos Santana and Canha.
That doesn’t mean the Brewers should be content with these smaller moves and call it an offseason. The club still needs a boost at the corner infield and DH positions, and there are free agents who can plug that gap. However, Arnold has done a nice job of exchanging prospects unlikely to influence the big-league roster for players who can.