Coming off a 2021 season that saw them run away with the NL Central behind a stable of controllable arms that put up high-end numbers for salaries that fell well below market value, the Brewers’ pitching staff is among the great envies of Major League Baseball. While many of their salaries will rise through arbitration in 2022 – Brandon Woodruff and Josh Hader are each slated for hefty raises – no decision facing Brewers GM Matt Arnold will have a greater bearing on the club’s future than his approach to reigning NL Cy Young Award Winner Corbin Burnes.
After pitching last season for a relatively piddly $608K, MLBTR’s Matt Swartz has Burnes slated for an even $4MM salary in 2022, his first year of arbitration eligibility, should he and the Brewers choose to go that route. While it clearly won’t come cheap, Arnold and the Brewers will at least want to kick the tires on a possible extension with their ace. With dollars flying around at an unprecedented rate before the lockout, though, what such an extension might look like remains an open question. Should the Brewers follow the arbitration path for the duration of Burnes’ eligibility, he’d become a free agent following his age-29 season in 2024.
While pinpointing a length or dollar-figure would be pure guesswork, we can safely say that a Burnes extension won’t come cheap. Burnes’ stellar 2021 didn’t come out of nowhere, exactly, but few would have predicted the dominance he displayed, particularly given that he had cracked top-prospect lists only shortly before his 2018 debut and entered 2021 with just 13 lifetime big-league starts. He’d also fallen on his face in a rotation stint to open the 2019 season, allowing 11 homers across three outings, and performed only marginally better out of the bullpen (7.76 ERA in 28 relief appearances, 10.70 in four starts).
Burnes’ huge step forward in 2020 came largely as the result of a plummeting home run rate (from 7.2% in 2019 to a miniscule 0.8% in 2020). In 2021, he nearly maintained the same low home run rate (1.1%) while cutting his walk rate almost in half to the lowest mark in the NL (from 10% in 2020 to 5.2% in 2021), while his home-run rate, K-rate (35.6%), K/BB ratio (6.88), and FIP (1.63) all led the majors among qualified starters. He also won the big-league ERA title with a 2.43 mark in 167 innings.
Given the relative scarcity of pitchers of Burnes’ caliber at this point in their careers, comparisons are scant. The White Sox gave Chris Sale $32MM over five years ahead of the 2013 season, but he was still a year from arbitration and only had one year as a starter—and no Cy Youngs—under his belt at the time. The seven years and $175MM the Nationals gave Stephen Strasburg in May 2016—which also included an opt-out clause he wound up using—came only a few months ahead of Strasburg reaching free agency (albeit with a Tommy John surgery on file). Similarly, Jacob deGrom’s five-year, $137.5MM whopper came just ahead of his final arb-year. (On one hand, deGrom was 31 in 2019, significantly older than Burnes, but is also in a class of his own.)
Perhaps a better comp is Aaron Nola’s four year, $45MM pact (also with a club option) with the Phillies in 2019, which came at the same point in his arbitration cycle, though the comparison is far from perfect. While Nola was at the time a year younger than Burnes is now and had a longer track record as an effective big-league starter, he’d never reached (and hasn’t since) quite the heights Burnes has over the last two seasons. The closest comparison, then, is likely the $50MM over five years the Rays gave to Blake Snell following his dominant 2018 Cy Young season. That backloaded deal, which came a year ahead of Snell’s arbitration eligibility, followed a breakout campaign on the heels of strong but not spectacular performances in the two years prior.
The Brewers will likely be more than willing to give Burnes (and his dominant cutter) quite a bit more in the ways of both years and dollars than the Phillies gave Nola or the Rays gave Snell, perhaps inching him a bit closer to Strasburg and deGrom. They should also have money to spend; the eight-figure salaries of Avisail Garcia (signed with the Marlins) and Jackie Bradley Jr. (traded to the Red Sox) have both come off their books, while Lorenzo Cain’s will do the same after he plays out his $18MM guarantee in 2022. They’ll remain on the hook for $26MM/year to Christian Yelich through 2028, but they otherwise have no salary commitments in 2023 beyond $3.735MM to starter Freddy Peralta and a $2MM buyout to second baseman Kolten Wong.
They will, of course, also want to augment a lineup that lagged well behind the rotation in overall production, but figuring out the plan with their rotation anchor is certain to be their first priority. Something in the neighborhood of a five- or six-year guarantee that pushes the nine-figure mark – perhaps also including performance escalators and/or a high-dollar club option or two – might be enough to satisfy club and player, guaranteeing the Brewers cost certainty and control of their franchise player beyond his arbitration years and Burnes significant financial security.
With the small-market Brewers in the middle of a contention window and Burnes’ rotation-mates Woodruff and Peralta under club control through 2024 and 2026, respectively, Brewers fans can likely count on the same sort of high-end starting pitching that propelled the 2021 club for at least a few more years regardless of Burnes’ contract status. Lefty Eric Lauer and late-bloomer Adrian Houser will likely return to round out the rotation in 2022, each in his first of arb-eligibility, granting the club an enviable expectation of consistency in the rotation. Graduating prospect Aaron Ashby, who pitched to a 4.55 ERA in 31 2/3 innings in 2021, may also push for a spot in rotation, though Craig Counsell may choose to keep him in the bullpen (or stash him in AAA) until his services as a starter are required.
While the small-market Brewers will likely have to dole out a bit more in the way of years and dollars than they’d like to keep their ace around in the long term, it may just be a risk they have to take. If Burnes can stay healthy and duplicate his recent dominance into his early 30s, the club would at minimum have the sort of top-of-the-rotation workhorse that perennial playoff teams rely on to reach the tournament year after year. And if Burnes preserves anything like his form over the last two seasons over the long haul, it would be a risk they’re glad they took.