The Orioles got their ace. Baltimore announced the acquisition of 2021 NL Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes from the Brewers for rookie infielder Joey Ortiz, left-hander DL Hall, and their 2024 Competitive Balance Round A draft pick (#34 overall). Milwaukee designated lefty Ethan Small for assignment to clear the necessary 40-man roster spot.
There’d been speculation as far back as last offseason about the possibility of the Orioles acquiring a top-end starting pitcher. Baltimore has a loaded farm system that has graduated plenty of young talent over the past two seasons. Most of that has been concentrated on the position player side, making it a natural fit for them to leverage that farm depth to bring in an impact starter.
Burnes certainly qualifies. He established himself in the Milwaukee rotation during the shortened 2020 campaign. The righty has finished in the top 10 in NL Cy Young balloting in each of the past four seasons. He won the award in ’21 thanks to an MLB-best 2.43 ERA across 167 innings. Burnes followed up with a National League-leading 243 strikeouts and a 2.94 ERA across 202 frames the following season.
Last season was perhaps his least impressive showing since his 2020 breakout. Yet it could only be classified as a “down” year by Burnes’ immense standards. He remained a top-of-the-rotation pitcher, turning in a 3.39 ERA while logging 193 2/3 innings across 32 starts. His 25.5% strikeout rate was still a few points better than league average, as was his 12.2% swinging strike percentage. He finished eighth in Cy Young voting.
It wasn’t the same level of dominance that Burnes had shown in the preceding three years. He had fanned more than 30% of opponents with a swinging strike rate above 14% in every year from 2020-22. Burnes looked more like his old self down the stretch, however. He carried a 3.94 ERA and a 23.1% strikeout rate into the All-Star Break. In the second half, he fanned 28.6% of opponents while allowing only 2.71 earned runs per nine. Opposing hitters had a pitiful .187/.259/.294 slash line after the Midsummer Classic.
Going back to the start of 2020, Burnes has a 2.86 ERA over 105 appearances. He has punched out nearly 31% of batters faced against a modest 7.1% walk rate. Batters are hitting .197/.262/.308 in nearly 2500 trips to the plate. Neither left-handed nor righty-hitting opponents have had success against him. Outside of a two-week injured list stint early in 2021 because of a finger contusion, he hasn’t missed any time within the last three years.
Burnes is a true ace, one of the 5-10 best pitchers in baseball. He jumps to the top of a rotation that has suddenly gone from Baltimore’s biggest question to one of the higher-upside staffs in the league. Kyle Bradish slots in as the #2 arm after a breakout 2023 campaign in which he worked to a 2.83 ERA over 30 starts. Grayson Rodriguez looks to have turned a corner in the second half. The former top pitching prospect worked to a 4.35 ERA in his rookie season. After being tagged for a 7.35 ERA in his first 10 MLB outings, he turned in a 2.58 mark in his final 13 regular season starts (although he was hit hard in his lone playoff appearance).
That’s a potentially elite top three. Former All-Star John Means returned from Tommy John surgery late last season. Some residual elbow soreness kept him off the club’s playoff roster, but he’s expected to be fully healthy for 2024. If that’s true, he slots in well as the #4 starter. Dean Kremer would likely occupy the final spot, with Tyler Wells and Cole Irvin pushed into season-opening relief roles.
While the O’s could perhaps benefit from another depth addition or two, they’ve landed the true #1 that should represent the finishing move on an already great roster. Baltimore’s loaded young lineup and excellent relief corps led the team to 101 wins and an AL East title a year ago. The O’s lost star closer Félix Bautista to Tommy John surgery at year’s end but moved early in the offseason to sign Craig Kimbrel as a replacement.
It’s likely a one-year acquisition. Burnes will hit free agency next offseason shortly after his 30th birthday. With anything like his typical levels of production, he’ll be in line for a massive contract that could top eight years and $200-250MM. Burnes has been clear about his desire to test his value on the open market. Asked in December about the possibility of signing an extension if he were traded this winter, he said such an offer “would have to be something that would just absolutely blow you away to get you away from testing the free agent market.”
As recently as last week, O’s fans wouldn’t have been able to dream about the organization putting that kind of proposal on the table. Baltimore has dramatically scaled back spending since John Angelos assumed control of the franchise. On Tuesday, the Angelos family agreed to sell the organization to private equity mogul David Rubenstein. How that’ll impact the long-term payroll outlook remains to be seen, but Baltimore fans can be more optimistic about the chances of making significant investments once Rubenstein takes control of the franchise after the sale is approved by MLB in the coming months.
In any case, the primary focus is installing Burnes atop next year’s rotation. The three-time All-Star had settled on a $15.637MM contract with Milwaukee to avoid arbitration in his final season of eligibility. That makes him the highest-paid player on Baltimore’s roster and pushes their 2024 payroll projection to roughly $96MM, as calculated by Roster Resource. It’ll be their highest season-opening payroll since 2018 and is a marked increase over last year’s approximate $60MM mark.
Still, they’re in the bottom third of the league in projected spending. They’re making a push to defend a title in what is annually one of the sport’s most competitive divisions. Their only commitments beyond this season are a $1MM salary for Bautista and a handful of inexpensive option buyouts. Even if this takes them near their spending limit this offseason, they should have flexibility to further bolster the roster near the deadline.
That Baltimore did so without surrendering any of their true top-tier prospects reflects both the strength of their talent pipeline and the value ceiling for any player who is only one year from free agency. Ortiz and Hall are each highly-regarded young players but placed in the back half of Baltimore’s top 10 prospects at Baseball America.
Ortiz, 25, was a fourth-round pick in 2019 out of New Mexico State. He’d drawn praise for his defensive acumen dating back to his time in college. The right-handed hitter has been more productive at the plate than many amateur scouts anticipated. He owns a .286/.357/.449 slash in his minor league career. Ortiz posted similar numbers between the top two levels of the minors a year ago.
In exactly 600 plate appearances between Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk, he put up a .284/.349/.477 slash. He rapped 35 doubles and 19 homers with an average 8.3% walk rate and a modest 16.3% strikeout percentage. Ortiz spent most of his time at shortstop while logging some action at both second and third base. Baltimore promoted him for the first time at the end of April. He nevertheless spent most of the season on optional assignment, appearing in only 15 big league contests. With Jackson Holliday and Gunnar Henderson as the projected left side infield for the foreseeable future, Ortiz would have had a hard time finding much playing time.
Baseball America’s scouting report rates Ortiz as a potential 70-grade (plus-plus) defensive shortstop. Assuming he’s not traded in the next six weeks, Willy Adames will open the season at shortstop. Milwaukee is likely to lose Adames to free agency next winter at the latest, though, leaving a clear path for Ortiz to emerge as the long-term answer. In the short term, he should battle Andruw Monasterio and Owen Miller for playing time at third base. If Monasterio or Miller warrant extended run at the hot corner, Ortiz is an alternative to Brice Turang at second. Turang is a gifted defender but struggled at the plate during his rookie year.
Hall, also 25, was a first-round pick out of a Georgia high school seven years ago. The 6’2″ southpaw has had the same general profile for his entire professional career: huge stuff with worrying control issues. Hall made his MLB debut in 2022 and has logged 33 big league innings over the past two seasons. He owns a 4.36 ERA with a 29% strikeout rate while working almost exclusively in relief.
His 7.6% walk percentage at the MLB level isn’t out of the ordinary. Hall has been a lot less consistent at throwing strikes in the minors, however. He handed out free passes to over 13% of batters faced in 49 innings at Norfolk a year ago, which is right in line with the 13.4% walk rate he owns in his minor league career.
That he also punched out nearly a third of batters faced in Triple-A hints at the excellent arsenal he owns. His fastball averaged nearly 96 MPH in his big league relief work. Hall also worked with a mid-80s slider and changeup while occasionally mixing in a curveball. BA’s scouting report notes that all four of those offerings could be plus or better.
It’s top-of-the-rotation caliber stuff, but Hall’s strike-throwing has led many evaluators to project him as a high-octane reliever. Milwaukee could use him in either capacity. The Brewers have ample opportunity in the rotation behind new staff ace Freddy Peralta. Veteran lefty Wade Miley is a steadying presence. After that, Milwaukee could lean on any of Colin Rea, injury returnees Joe Ross and Aaron Ashby and prospects like Hall and Robert Gasser in the rotation.
Neither Ortiz nor Hall has reached one year of major league service. They’re each under club control for at least six seasons and three years away from arbitration. They’re the kind of high minors players that Milwaukee frequently targets. Their organizational philosophy, much like that of other small-market franchises like the Rays and Guardians, is to eschew traditional competitive windows while building the farm system by trading veterans as they get close to free agency.
GM Matt Arnold stated that trading Burnes isn’t the signal of a traditional rebuild (relayed by Curt Hogg of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel). Last week’s signing of Rhys Hoskins to a $34MM free agent deal that allows him to opt out after next season makes clear they’re not giving up on contending in a wide open NL Central. They’ve shown time and again they’ve nevertheless open to offers on most players to try to remain consistently competitive. After trading Josh Hader at the 2022 deadline led to discontent within the clubhouse, the front office suggested they were less inclined to make those kinds of trades during the season.
Between the shoulder injury that led Milwaukee to non-tender Brandon Woodruff and tonight’s move, the Brewers have subtracted their top two starters this offseason. Milwaukee’s payroll projection drops to around $102MM, per Roster Resource. That’s well below last year’s $118MM season-opening mark. That leaves open the possibility of Milwaukee backfilling the rotation in free agency. Arnold was noncommittal as to whether the team planned to reinvest their payroll savings (via Hogg).
Milwaukee should add a third notable young player with the draft choice they acquired. Milwaukee would have received a compensatory pick had they let Burnes depart in free agency — he’ll surely reject a qualifying offer — but that wouldn’t have been until 2025. Baltimore can make Burnes a QO next offseason (and will, unless he suffers a serious injury). As a revenue sharing recipient, they’d land a compensation pick after the first round in 2025 if he signs elsewhere for at least $50MM.
Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic first reported the Orioles were nearing a deal to acquire Burnes. Jon Heyman of the New York Post indicated the deal was agreed upon. ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that Ortiz and Hall were among the pieces headed to the Brewers. Mark Feinsand of MLB.com reported the inclusion of the draft pick to complete the deal.
Images courtesy of USA Today Sports.