For a couple years now, the Brewers trading ace Corbin Burnes prior to him reaching free agency seemed like a fait accompli.
The Brewers know they can't afford to sign Burnes to an extension and rather than lose him in free agency for only a draft pick in compensation, they could trade him and receive a package of players to help the roster in the near- and long-term future of the franchise. That's the path they took with Josh Hader and it's the path they could take with Corbin Burnes.
The Brewers felt comfortable trading Hader when they did because they had a ready-made replacement in Devin Williams to take over as closer and a deep crop of bullpen arms. Milwaukee's starting rotation was also deep in top arms with a big three of Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, and Freddy Peralta. Even if Burnes is removed from that group via trade, that's still a strong top of the rotation that can be the strength of a playoff-caliber team.
However, the situation in the rotation has changed. Woodruff's shoulder injury meant he will miss likely all of 2024 and as a result, the Brewers non-tendered him. The Big Three is already down to two and Burnes is still on the roster.
Can they really trade Burnes now and take the rotation from a strength and turn it into what will undoubtedly be a weakness? The Brewers are unlikely to be able to afford any of the free agent options to replace the production atop the rotation adequately. Improving the rotation via trade means either getting it back in the Burnes trade or moving top prospects and sacrificing potential key future pieces. The latter seems unlikely and the former is not going to bring back anyone who can step in as the ace in 2024.
A Burnes trade would seem to signal a step back from competing in 2024. If the rotation will go from a strength to a weakness, the offense must turn from a weakness into a strength, and this Brewers offense is nowhere close to becoming the strength of a competitive team. Everything the Brewers have said to this point indicates they will never intentionally take a step back from competing, so they will need some big addition to counteract the loss of Burnes and Woodruff if they make this kind of move.
They have young pitching ready for the big leagues, and a trade of Burnes would clear the deck for those young arms to get regular starts, good or bad. Milwaukee would be left with few alternatives if those rookies don't immediately thrive and the season could go haywire quickly.
When could a Corbin Burnes trade come together?
If the Brewers were to complete a Corbin Burnes trade, it will have to be this offseason and it's going to have to wait until the top free agent starters are off the market. This year's free agent crop is swimming in pitching options atop the rotation and the teams that lose out on those top starters will be the ones willing to pay the price to get Burnes.
Eduardo Rodriguez, Blake Snell, and Yoshinobu Yamamoto are among the top options currently on the market. Plenty of teams are pursuing them and plenty of teams are searching for pitching. The Brewers also need pitching depth, which adds to the list of cons of trading Burnes this winter, but they could theoretically receive multiple pitchers in any return package for him.
If this happens, it's going to be a couple of weeks. However, there's a decent chance a Burnes trade doesn't come together this winter. A mid-season trade if the team is competitive is out the window. The fallout of the Hader trade should scare off the Brewers from pulling something like that again. If they're uncompetitive, then they could sell.
But if the Brewers get to spring training and Burnes is still on the roster, it's reasonable to expect Burnes will stay in Milwaukee through to free agency.