In a stunning blockbuster, the Padres have agreed to acquire All-Star closer Josh Hader from the Brewers, reports Jeff Passan of ESPN (Twitter link). The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported just minutes ago that the Brewers were closing in on a Hader deal.
The Padres are sending their own closer, Taylor Rogersto Milwaukee back in the deal, Passan further tweet. Milwaukee will also acquire righty Dinelson Lametpitching prospect Robert Gasser and outfield prospect Esteury Ruiz.
It’s a massive get for the Padres, and while it’s a genuine surprise to see Milwaukee move its closer while holding a three-game lead in the National League Central, the reasoning behind the trade is fairly straightforward. Hader’s $11MM salary figures to jump north of $15MM next season in his final year of club control, and a generally budget-conscious Brewers club may not be willing to dedicate $15-17MM to a single reliever when that represents such a notable portion of the overall payroll.
The Brewers, of course, could have held Hader into the winter and made him available at that point, but the allure of landing Hader for multiple postseason pushes undeniably allowed them to seek a higher price right now. To that end, they’re acquiring a closer of their own in Rogers, who — like Hader — has struggled of late but has an excellent track record spanning several seasons. Milwaukee also adds a high-octane arm in Lamet, albeit one that’s been plagued by injuries, and two of the Padres’ top ten prospects in Gasser and Ruiz, which breathes some much-needed life into a farm system that has generally not been considered among the sport’s strongest.
It’s the sort of trade we’re accustomed to seeing smaller-payroll clubs like the Rays and Guardians make with regularity: cash in a coveted player’s trade value when he has multiple seasons of club control and simultaneously backfill that spot on the roster with other big league help. It’s an immediate downgrade on the roster overall, but this type of simultaneous buy-and-sell tightrope act has been one of the keys to Tampa Bay, Cleveland and even Milwaukee itself remaining competitive despite rarely being able to spend top-of-the- market money.
Hader, 28, is sitting on a career-worst 4.24 ERA, though that mark was inflated by an uncharacteristic pair of consecutive meltdowns earlier this month, wherein he was tagged for a staggering nine earned runs in one-third of an inning. Outside that pair of disastrous outings, Hader has a 1.87 ERA in 33 2/3 innings. He didn’t even allow a run this season until June 7 and has punched out a massive 41.8% of his opponents against an 8.5% walk rate.
Dating back to Hader’s 2017 debut, no one in baseball has topped his enormous 44.1% strikeout rate — nor have they come especially close to doing so. (Craig Kimbrell is second at 40.6%.) Hader’s 2.48 ERA in that time is eighth-best among 309 qualified relievers, and no one has topped his 19.5% swinging-strike rate.
The name who trails Hader in that massive swinging-strike rate — now-former teammate Devin Williams — may have something to do with today’s trade as well. The Brewers surely wouldn’t have been as comfortable moving Hader were it not for Williams’ own breakthrough as one of the sport’s most dominant relief pitchers. Armed with a lethal changeup (nicknamed the “Airbender”), Williams ranks fourth in strikeout rate (39.9%), second in swinging-strike rate (18.6%) and second in ERA (1.94) among that same subset of qualified relievers just mentioned with regard to Hader.
There’s certainly an argument to be made that Milwaukee should have simply kept Hader and trotted out that dominant duo throughout the rest of the season and the forthcoming playoff run, but the blend of high-upside, immediate replacements (Rogers, Lamet) and the long -term value of adding a pair of well-regarded prospects to the system proved too alluring for president of baseball operations David Stearns, GM Matt Arnold and the rest of the Milwaukee staff.
Turning to that collection of newly acquired talent, the Brewers will surely hope that Rogers can shake off the recent slump that has plagued him over the past two months. Rogers, from 2018-21 with the Twins, wasn’t far behind Hader on the list of the sport’s best left-handed relievers. He worked 197 2/3 frames during that time, pitching to a 2.91 ERA with a 31.2% strikeout rate, a 4.9% walk rate and 50 saves. A torn tendon in his pitching hand cut last season short for Rogers, however, and he was shipped from the Twins to San Diego on the eve of Opening Day this year.
Rogers took to his new environments brilliantly, pitching to a dominant 0.44 ERA with a 23-to-4 K/BB ratio through his first 20 1/3 innings. Since that time, however, he’s been clobbered for an 8.14 ERA in a nearly identical sample of 21 innings. Rogers still has an exceptional 25-to-5 K/BB ratio over that ugly stretch, however, and he’s only allowed one home run along the way. He’s been dogged by a sky-high .429 average on balls in play during this slump, but it’s still hard to overlook a stretch that has seen Rogers surrender runs in 13 of his past 22 appearances.
Still, Rogers’ track record is alluring, and perhaps the Brewers have their own idea about how to the lefty can get back on track. He’s a free agent at season’s end, making Rogers a pure rental — but he’s an ultra-affordable one, as the Twins covered all but $700K of his salary in that trade to the Padres.
Lamet, meanwhile, is another huge upside arm on whom the Brewers are buying low. The flamethrowing righty was a Cy Young candidate in the shortened 2020 season but went down with a biceps injury late that season and missed a significant portion of the 2021 campaign due to forearm strains.
Lamet has yielded 13 earned runs in just 12 1/3 Major League innings this season, but he’s been dominant in Triple-A (0.77 ERA in 11 2/3 frames). His fastball, which averaged 97 mph in 2020, is down to an average of 95.3 mph this year. There are obviously plenty of red flags with Lamet, but if he can recapture anything resembling his 2020 form (2.09 ERA, 34.8% strikeout rate, 7.5% walk rate) while coming out of the Milwaukee bullpen, he’d be a formidable addition to the relief corps both this year and next, as he’s arbitration-eligible once more before free agency in the 2023-24 offseason.
Both Gasser and Ruiz were among the Padres’ top 10 prospects and will now also join the Brewers’ top 10. Gasser, 23, was the No. 71 overall pick in the 2021 draft and has held his own in the rotation with the Padres’ Class-A Advanced affiliate this season. In 90 1/3 innings, he’s notched a 4.18 ERA but a far more impressive 3.27 FIP, thanks largely to a gaudy 30.5% strikeout rate and a sharp 7.4% walk rate. Somewhat amusingly, Gasser doesn’t rely on velocity to find success but rather plus command and a plus breaking ball. Baseball America tabs his fastball in the 90-93 mph range and calls Gasser a high-probability fourth starter — one who could move quickly through the minors. He could be an option in the Milwaukee by late in the 2023 season and certainly by the 2024 campaign.
Ruiz, meanwhile, is an immediate option for the Brewers in center field. He’s already made his big league debut, and while he’s just 6-for-27 through his first few games, he obliterated Double-A pitching (.344/.474/.611 in 232 plate appearances) and Triple-A opposition so far in 2022 (.315/.457/.477 in 142 plate appearances). Ruiz, incredibly, has stolen 60 bases in just 77 minor league games this year and has already picked up the first of what should be quite a few big league steals as well. Add in average or better raw power, and it’s easy to see why Milwaukee was enamored of him — particularly given the team’s need in center field.
Ruiz isn’t a true center fielder and only moved to the outfield on a full-time basis last season after struggling as an infielder, but BA’s scouting report on him notes that he’s already making decent jumps and reads as he learns center field on the fly. Strikeouts were an issue for Ruiz earlier in his career, but he’s punched out at just a 17.4% clip in the minors so far this season and has reportedly made some changes to his approach and swing that have improved upon his bat-to-ball abilities .
Of course, it’s far from common to see a division-leading team part with one of the game’s best players at his position midway through the season, but the entire gambit for the Brewers is an upside play that couldn’t net them comparable production in 2022 and considerable long-term value thereafter.
For the Padres, it’s a pure short-term play with the goal of putting together a powerhouse postseason pitching staff. It’s also surely not the only move San Diego president of baseball operations AJ Preller will make between now and tomorrow’s deadline. He managed to add Hader without having to surrender any of the organization’s very top-end prospects — eg Robert Hassel III, CJ Abrams, Jackson Merrill, James Wood, Luis Campusano — all of whom could be used as firepower to bring in a sizable pitching or outfield upgrade (eg Frankie Montas, Juan Soto).
It bears mentioning that the acquisition of Hader likely puts the Padres over the luxury tax threshold, even with Lamet’s salary going back to Milwaukee. That only serves as a further portent for significant dealings from Preller & Co., though. In all likelihood, the Padres are just getting started, and we shouldn’t expect this to be the only move of note for the Brewers either.