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Five thoughts: Analyzing the Orioles trade for Milwaukee Brewers star Corbin Burnes

Corbin Burnes
Credit: Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

The Baltimore Orioles won 101 games in 2023 and have most of their important pieces back. Yet it seemed like they would be overlooked again heading into spring training. The New York Yankees, after all, traded for Juan Soto, and were the prohibitive American League East favorites to start 2024 despite finishing in fourth last season.

Well, that shouldn’t be the case now. The Orioles’ Achilles heel – for more than two decades – has been the lack of a bona fide ace. Orioles general manager Mike Elias fixed that Thursday night with what may be one of the most important deals in franchise history: Acquiring 2021 NL Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes from Milwaukee for lefty DL Hall, infielder Joey Ortiz, and a 2024 Competitive Balance Round A draft pick (34th overall).

There’s a lot to unpack. Here are my five observations on this deal and what it means.

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The Orioles are the best team in the American League East; maybe in the entire AL

baltimore orioles
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Don’t get fooled by my years covering the Orioles; this isn’t a homer statement. The Orioles were the No. 1 seed in the AL last year and lost only two players of significance from that roster: Closer Félix Bautista to October elbow surgery and starter Kyle Gibson to free agency. They replaced Bautista earlier this offseason with established albeit enigmatic closer Craig Kimbrel and now Gibson with Burnes.

Hall and Ortiz could have been solid 2024 pieces, but there were no guarantees. Shipping away a high draft pick always stings a little, but it’s likely the Orioles will add a draft compensation pick in 2025 if Burnes hightails elsewhere next offseason.  

Most important, the Orioles didn’t have to give up any of their younger prospects in this swap. Most of the players that formed the nucleus of the 2023 team still have upsides – and some have potentially skyrocketing upsides, such as Gunnar Henderson, Grayson Rodriguez, Adley Rutschman, Kyle Bradish, and baseball’s top prospect, Jackson Holliday.

The only knock on this team going forward is that it didn’t have an ace, someone who can set the tone in big games. A veteran that can oppose the opponent’s best hurler and has the upper hand. They now have that in the 29-year-old Burnes, who has a career 3.26 ERA in 167 big-league games (106 starts) and a 2.84 ERA in eight playoff appearances (two starts).

He now sits atop a rotation that includes emerging star Bradish (fourth in 2023 AL Cy Young voting), impressive youngster Rodriguez, and a healthy John Means. Throw in a fifth starter – Dean Kremer, Tyler Wells, Cole Irvin – and that is a good enough and deep enough rotation to win another East title. If the Yankees add Blake Snell to answer the Burnes move, well, the equation changes again. But, until then, these Orioles get the nod.

The defending World Series champion Texas Rangers deserve favorite status in the AL (although they do need to re-sign Jordan Montgomery to retain that title), and the Houston Astros with new closer Josh Hader are exceptionally dangerous. But the Orioles with Burnes should be mentioned in the same breath as those two AL West behemoths.

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This is the Orioles’ biggest trade acquisition since … Reggie Jackson

reggie jackson
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The most impactful trade in Orioles history occurred before the 1966 season when the club sent pitcher Milt Pappas and two others to the Cincinnati Reds for outfielder Frank Robinson, who then led the Orioles to four World Series in six seasons on his way to a Hall-of-Fame career.

Acquiring Burnes isn’t of that magnitude. It is not franchise-altering. But it’s still huge, especially for this year.

Perhaps the best pitching-trade comparison in franchise history would be in 1968 when the Orioles sent former Rookie of the Year Curt Blefary and another player to the Houston Astros for 31-year-old lefty Mike Cuellar. An already strong rotation became nearly invincible. The difference, of course, is Cuellar pitched eight seasons in Baltimore, and Burnes may only last one.

Given that, here’s another comparison that can help put this deal in proper perspective. The Orioles acquired future Hall-of-Famer Reggie Jackson (and pitcher Ken Holtzman and a minor leaguer) in April 1976 from the fire-selling Oakland Athletics for future MVP Don Baylor, pitcher Mike Torrez and pitcher Paul Mitchell.

The buzz was deafening at the time; Jackson was an absolute superstar. It didn’t turn out particularly well, though. The Orioles thought they could sign Jackson to a long-term deal, and they couldn’t. He also held out directly after the trade, playing only 134 games.

Jackson nearly had a 30-30 season for the Orioles, but the team finished in second, 10.5 games behind the New York Yankees, the club Jackson would join the next season.

Burnes isn’t in Jackson’s stratosphere – few were – but he does have the chance to make a major impact on this club. I could also compare the Burnes acquisition to the Orioles’ 1991 trade with the Astros for slugger Glenn Davis, who also was perceived as the missing piece. But that one might be too soon for Orioles fans.

The point is there are few trades in Orioles’ history involving one major acquisition that has hit this high on the radar. And they now have a legitimate, no-questions ace for the first time since Mike Mussina left for the Yankees in 2000.

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Corbin Burnes is a one-year rental; accept that for now Orioles fans

corbin burnes
Credit: Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

The obvious hope in Baltimore is that this is not a one-year-only stay for Burnes, who is a free agent at the end of the 2024 season. A switch in ownership this week to billionaire David Rubenstein makes it more possible to envision a long-term deal in Charm City for Burnes than there may have been under Angelos family leadership.

Still, this must be viewed as a rental right now. Burnes, 29, will almost certainly test the open market next winter. He’s spoken before about getting that opportunity and he reiterated Friday that testing the market is something every player strives toward, though that’s not his focus now and won’t be once the season begins.

Frankly, he’d be a fool not to enter free agency since it will be his primary – and maybe only – true chomp at the open-market apple.

Last March, he hired the Boras Corporation as his representation, and that’s not just because the company has cool headquarters in Southern California (though it does).

Agent Scott Boras historically leads his stars to free agency, where he often gets them mind-blowing contracts. And even if a player decides to return to their previous team, it’s almost exclusively after driving up the price with varied competition.

Sure, it’s possible Burnes falls in love with Baltimore and the Orioles’ culture and decides to stay if and when Rubenstein rolls up a money truck to Camden Yards. But that cannot be the assumption at this moment. It’s far more likely Burnes, if healthy all year, goes to the highest bidder. So, once he enters free agency, everything resets. And all teams will have a shot.

Elias understands that risk. He’s fine with it. He acknowledged this trade is “about now.” And that’s the way it should be.

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Even indirectly, this signifies a new financial dawning in Baltimore

baltimore orioles
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Perhaps the Orioles do blow away Burnes before he gets to free agency. There at least is a chance of that occurring. A week ago, without Rubenstein and other billionaires stepping in, there wasn’t.

Currently, John Angelos remains the control person for the Orioles – until the 40 percent stake sold to Rubenstein is approved by the other 29 MLB owners. Elias said Friday that he had been working with Angelos on the Burnes deal since November and that Angelos approved Burnes’ $15.6 million salary for 2024.

Therefore, the timing of the trade, almost directly following the announcement of the sale, may be coincidental – though it would be naïve to think Rubenstein and his people weren’t briefed about the deal before it was finalized.

Coincidence or not, this signifies a new financial undertaking in Baltimore. This is a big-boy trade with a hefty, one-year contract and the likelihood it’s a one-year-and-done acquisition. The previous ownership wasn’t fond of rentals. But this is what happens when you are a contender with a deep farm system.

It’s something we may see again in July if the Orioles need a piece to fortify their playoff run. And it’s what we could see next offseason in free agency, whether it is to re-sign Burnes or replace him. The Orioles soon will have deep, deep pockets. That’s a reality that will take some time to comprehend.

Given the circumstances, the Brewers did fine here

dl hall
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Initially, this appears to be a steal for the Orioles. They acquired one of the best pitchers in baseball for a draft pick and two 25-year-olds who have barely played in the big leagues. Elias absolutely, positively had to make this deal once it was on the table.

But understand that Hall and Ortiz are going to start the season with the Brewers and don’t become free agents until after the 2029 season. And Burnes, who didn’t like the way the Milwaukee front office handled his arbitration case in 2023, wasn’t re-signing there after this season.

Elias said multiple times during his Friday news conference that the Brewers were targeting a shortstop in return for Burnes, and Ortiz held exceptional value. He’s a tremendous defensive player who has hit well in the minors despite struggling offensively in a tiny sample size (.212/.206/.242 slash in 34 plate appearances) with the Orioles last year.

Ortiz can start at shortstop in the majors now, which will allow the Brewers to deal Willy Adames, also a pending free agent, if they desire. The Orioles didn’t want to move Ortiz, but they are so stocked with middle infielders that several injuries would have to occur for him to carve out regular playing time in 2024.

Then there is Hall, who was limited by a back ailment last offseason that basically altered most of his 2023 until a strong showing out of the bullpen in September. He’s had some health issues and has battled a loss of control at times, but Hall possessed maybe the best arm – and a left-handed one — in the Orioles organization.

Hall is a tremendous competitor with a great work ethic and four plus pitches that play in the big leagues. He also is willing to do what is asked of him – even when it meant going all the way back to Sarasota, Fla., last year to improve his strength.

If Hall can stay healthy, he could be a significant rotation piece for the Brewers through 2029. And, if his body can’t handle a starter’s bulk of innings, he has what it takes mentally and physically to succeed in the back end of the bullpen.

There is a possibility that at some point this becomes the DL Hall trade and not the Corbin Burnes trade. The Orioles, though, had to take that risk, given what they need to take the next step in their ascent. And the fact they didn’t deal away a prospect under age 25 or a top five prospect likely stings Brewers fans.

But they can take heart that there is real upside here, and the Brewers have two players ready to play in the big leagues in 2024.

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