The Milwaukee Brewers Can Save Their Offseason by Trading Josh Hader

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 4, 2019

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 01: Josh Hader #71 of the Milwaukee Brewers throws a pitch against the Washington Nationals during the eighth inning in the National League Wild Card game at Nationals Park on October 01, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

The 2019-20 Major League Baseball offseason has only been going on for about a month, yet it's already given the Milwaukee Brewers no choice but to consider drastic measures.

Up to and including a trade of arguably baseball's best relief pitcher.

According to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, left-handed closer Josh Hader is "indeed available" in trade talks. It was a surprise when Rosenthal reported that Sunday, but the two-time All-Star's availability is only making more sense by the day.

On Monday, the Brewers lost Mike Moustakas to free agency when he signed a four-year, $64 million contract with the Cincinnati Reds. Before that, they had already lost Yasmani Grandal and Drew Pomeranz on four-year deals with the Chicago White Sox and San Diego Padres, respectively.

Moustakas and Grandal combined for an .848 OPS and 63 home runs in 2019. Meanwhile, Pomeranz was an instrumental bullpen piece with 45 strikeouts in only 26.1 innings after joining the Brewers in July.

Milwaukee's depth chart has also been dinged by trades of Chase Anderson, Zach Davies and Trent Grisham, Eric Thames' declined option and five non-tenders, including Travis Shaw and Jimmy Nelson.

The trade of Davies and Grisham to the Padres brought back shortstop Luis Urias, who was an elite prospect going into 2019, and left-hander Eric Lauer, who's a decent innings-eater. The Brewers also have opened up a good deal of payroll flexibility.

As of now, however, they hardly resemble either the team that won 96 games in 2018 or the team that won 89 games in 2019. And given how much free agency is paying out so far, the flexibility they've gained probably isn't enough to fill their many holes on the open market.

Which brings us back to Hader, who now looks like a singularly valuable trade chip.

CINCINNATI, OH - SEPTEMBER 24:  Josh Hader #71 of the Milwaukee Brewers pitches in the ninth inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park on September 24, 2019 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Milwaukee defeated Cincinnati 4-2.  (Photo by Jamie Saba
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Since making his major league debut in 2017, Hader has racked up a 2.42 ERA in 151 appearances across 204.2 innings. According to Baseball Reference, his 6.6 wins above replacement in this span ranks second among relievers.

Yet the 25-year-old's biggest claim to pitching fame is his ability to strike batters out. His career rate of 15.4 strikeouts per nine innings is the highest of any pitcher who's ever logged over 200 innings.

And Hader's dominance is only increasing as he gains experience. His K/9 has risen from 12.8 to 15.8 to 16.4 in his three seasons, while his walks-per-nine rate has dropped from 4.2 to 3.3 to 2.4. 

More specifically, Hader's fastball is becoming increasingly dominant. He threw it 84.3 percent of the time in 2019, with both career-best velocity (95.5 mph) and spin rate (2,123 RPM). Hitters knew it was coming, but they just couldn't hit it.

An obligatory disclaimer about relief pitchers is that their performances are notoriously volatile. What happened with the New York Mets and Edwin Diaz in 2019 is a good example of how teams can be burned by that reality.

But whereas Diaz only had one truly outstanding season before 2019, it's to Hader's credit that he's always been good and is still getting better. As relievers go, he would seem to be a sure thing.

Hader's reputation took a hit during the 2018 All-Star Game, when Twitter users dug up racist, homophobic and generally hurtful tweets from his teenage years. Yet that presumably won't lessen his trade value, which is further heightened by his modest salary projection ($4.6 million) for 2020 and his club control through 2023.

Meanwhile, what's happening in the wider world of relief pitching can't be ignored.

In 2019, relievers were needed for a record number of innings yet also recorded their worst ERA since 2000. The way in which top free agents such as Pomeranz, Will Smith and Chris Martin were quickly snatched up on multiyear deals suggests teams can read the writing on the wall: Good relievers are at a premium right now.

The holy grail of relief pitcher trades is the 2016 deal in which the New York Yankees cashed in two-and-a-half years of Andrew Miller for four players, including top prospects Justus Sheffield and Clint Frazier. And that was at a time when good relief pitching was in relatively decent supply.

In theory, Hader's present trade value is thus through the proverbial roof. So much so that the Brewers might stand to gain more from moving him than they would from keeping him.

Rosenthal tossed out J.D. Davis and even Jeff McNeil as possible centerpieces in a trade with the Mets. The Brewers hypothetically could inquire about Dom Smith, Brandon Nimmo or Seth Lugo, too.

If not the Mets, the Los Angeles Dodgers might covet Hader for their much-maligned bullpen. Even if they didn't want to deal any core pieces from their major league roster, younger talents such as Dustin May, Keibert Ruiz or even uber-prospect Gavin Lux might not be off-limits.

The Boston Red Sox are another possibility. They have a variety of corner infielders (i.e., Michael Chavis, Sam Travis and Bobby Dalbec) to offer. If they were willing to move Ryan Braun to first base, the Brewers could also push for Andrew Benintendi.

This is just scratching the surface of a long list of contenders that could conceivably make a run for Hader. If it's a question of which teams need a controllable relief ace, the Yankees and Atlanta Braves might be the only two clubs that don't match that description.

This doesn't mean the Brewers have to trade Hader. But given the many different circumstances at play, they could be glad they chose to strike this particular iron while it was hot.

                  

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant. Payroll data courtesy of Roster Resource. Salary arbitration projections courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors.

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