A few days before the trade deadline, the Brewers traded Brett Phillips and Jorge Lopez to Kansas City for Mike Moustakas. Moustakas is under contract through the end of this season, and then there is a mutual option at $15 million for next year. Phillips and Lopez have each spent time in both Triple-A and the major leagues, and both still qualify as rookies this season (although Phillips will not next year).
Moustakas’s mutual option is difficult to evaluate. Mutual options are not usually exercised because one party or the other is incentivized to gamble on the market. If the club wants to pick up the option, it is because the player has performed well and thus likely can get a longer term deal as a free agent. Similarly, if the player wants to pick up the option, the team will likely feel like it can get similar production for less money in the free agency market. However, Moustakas is a decent player (league average or better three of the last five seasons) that the Brewers may want to keep for next year, and Moustakas may be scared off of the free agent market by what happened last winter. Thus, it is at least possible that the mutual option here is exercised.
In that best-case scenario, the Brewers traded two prospects with less than six years of team control for eight months of Moustakas (two this year and six next year). Of course, whether Phillips and Lopez are worthy of a major league roster spot for six years each is an open question, but Phillips seems like a solid fourth outfielder at worst and Lopez is a potential bullpen option. Each of those profiles has value around the league, and thus value in trades. I don’t think it unreasonable to call this an overpay.
Then, on the day of the deadline, the Brewers traded Jonathan Villar, Luis Ortiz, and Jean Carmona to Baltimore for Jonathan Schoop. Schoop is under team control through 2019, and he has been an above-average player just once in his career (4.7 WARP last season). Villar, meanwhile, has a similarly inconsistent track record (4.7 WARP in 2016) and is under control through 2021. Ortiz was a highly regarded prospect not long ago. Although Villar has not shown any indication that he will return to being the player he was in 2016, Schoop is not a sure bet to be much better. And because Schoop is a second baseman, the Brewers’ infield defense got much worse with this trade. Just as with the Moustakas trade, I don’t think it is unreasonable to call it an overpay.
With all of that being said, however, I do not necessarily think these were bad trades. The Brewers were trading from depth. Phillips and Lopez were already on the 40-man roster, and Ortiz was going to have to be added this winter (as was Kodi Medeiros, who the Brewers also traded at the end of July). Additionally, Phillips’s path to regular playing time in the big leagues is completely blocked, with Lorenzo Cain, Christian Yelich, and Ryan Braun the likely starters for the next few years. The club also has plenty of mid-rotation and middle-relief options, so Lopez, Ortiz, and Medeiros are surplus to those requirements as well. The Brewers know the most about their prospects, and if they decided these were the players they felt least confident about, then dealing them is a smart decision that makes some sense.
But I think we are at risk of hand-waving questionable trades so that we don’t sound like prospect hoarders. Most prospects don’t reach their ceiling or even make an impact in the majors, so organizations should be more willing to deal those they are not confident in. Because of the Brewers’ pending 40-man roster crunch, they did have to make moves to get value for players they otherwise would have lost for nothing in this offseason’s Rule 5 draft (which Ortiz and Medeiros were both candidates for). And although trading for Moustakas and Schoop could work out if they both hit and the Brewers can shift competently enough to cover the defensive holes, neither one seems a particularly good fit with this roster.
I don’t expect either of these trades to look particularly bad in hindsight. Phillips is the only prospect dealt I have any significant expectations for, and Schoop could very well return to being an above-average second baseman during his time in Milwaukee. What I do think deserves scrutiny is whether this was the best use of assets. Just because a trade can be justified does not mean it was the right deal. I cannot know what other options were on the table for David Stearns, but I am skeptical that the best use of major-league caliber assets was dealing them for short-term contracts for slugging infielders with no clear-cut path for the club to accommodate all of them.
Because of the information imbalance between public observers and the front office, it is relatively easy to defend a trade by finding a justification for it. If we assume the Brewers have certain ideas about the players they dealt and acquired, then it can make sense. And this front office has undoubtedly earned the benefit of the doubt with the way it has managed the roster and acquired talent (the Christian Yelich trade is a good example). However, shipping off useful pieces for players that don’t particularly fit is questionable to me.
I am not suggesting the Brewers should have kept Villar, Phillips, and Lopez because of some chance that each becomes a star. I recognize that those outcomes are unlikely. Instead, I believe those players could have been traded for more. Neither Moustakas nor Schoop is particularly exciting. They are useful big leaguers, but acquiring them together has created a situation where Travis Shaw may get less playing time despite being a better hitter than either of the new acquisitions. This use of assets just does not make sense to me.