Trade Analysis: Brewers use Hunter Renfroe to bolster pitching depth, but they cannot replace his bat internally

The Brewers ignited the hot stove on Tuesday night, trading right fielder Hunter Renfroe to the Los Angeles Angels in exchange for a trio of pitching prospects.

The move did not come entirely out of the blue. The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal mentioned Renfroe, who is projected for a salary bump to $11.2 million in arbitration, as a trade candidate last week.

Still, it was far from a given that the Brewers would ship out their most consistent hitter in 2022. Renfroe led the team with a career-best 124 wRC+ and finished third with 29 home runs.

At first glance, the return heading back to Milwaukee may seem underwhelming.

Janson Junk has pitched in just 24 23 big-league innings, and his 4.86 ERA in 17 career Triple-A appearances is not encouraging. At 27 years old, he’s far from a can’t-miss prospect.

Elvis Peguero also has a limited track record, posting a 9.15 ERA and 5.92 FIP in 19 23 big-league innings. Adam Seminaris reached Triple-A last season, but his performance worsened as he climbed the minor-league ladder.

According to General Manager Matt Arnold, the Brewers believe that all three can make an impact in 2023.

Junk’s arsenal points to more potential than he demonstrated in his brief stint with the Angels. His four-seam fastball does not blow anyone away, but it has strong spin that ought to play in the upper third of the strike zone. According to Statcast, Junk’s fastball spin placed in the 83rd percentile this year with an above-average rising effect.

The right-hander also revamped his slider this past season to separate it from his curveball. It previously moved like a slurve, but he added a couple of ticks of velocity and transformed it into a sharper slider with late bite. This has helped him induce more whiffs with the pitch, which has become his primary breaking ball.

Junk also features a curveball with a steep 12-6 break. He hasn’t had much success with the loopier breaking ball, so it took a back seat to his refined slider in 2022. The Brewers may help him pair it more effectively with his fastball moving forward. Finally, Junk possesses a fringe changeup that he rarely uses.

Arnold anticipates Junk competing for a rotation spot. While he’s far from a sure thing, he has more upside as a depth option than Jason Alexander, who limped to a 5.40 ERA with underwhelming strikeout and walk rates in 71 23 innings for the Brewers.

The flame-throwing Peguero has the best raw stuff in the return. The 25-year-old reliever averaged 96.4 mph with his heavy sinker, but he turned to his slider as his primary pitch in 2022. Peguero’s slider averaged 91 mph and topped out at 94 mph, making it one of the hardest sliders in all of baseball. It induced whiffs at a 30.6% clip in a small sample size.

Junk and Peguero joined the 40-man roster. Both have two option years remaining and are controllable through the 2028 season.

Scouting reports indicate that Seminaris doesn’t have great stuff besides a strong changeup. Instead, he relies on mixing speeds and locations. In addition to the changeup, the southpaw features a sinker, four-seamer, and curveball. Some pitch-tracking systems have also labeled some of his breaking balls as sliders.

Underperformance from an injury-ravaged pitching staff is the primary reason the Brewers failed to make the postseason in 2022, so improving their pitching depth was a priority moving forward. The Renfroe trade accomplishes just that. While Junk, Peguero, and Seminaris may not be highly-touted arms, they possess more upside than Alexander and the group of mediocre middle relievers the Brewers were forced to rely on for much of 2022.

At the same time, the departure of Renfroe leaves the Brewers with an opening in right field and a duty to replace their best bat.

Milwaukee’s farm system is deep with outfielders, but if the Renfroe trade is a precursor to nothing more than an increased opportunity for these prospects, the Brewers are placing ill-advised faith in their young players.

Sal Frelick’s excellent plate discipline gives him the highest floor of these prospects, but his lack of power limits his ceiling. While Garrett Mitchell’s surface-level numbers in his debut season look promising, his high-strikeout and ground ball-heavy tendencies make for a potentially disastrous offensive profile. Joey Wiemer’s alarming 30.2% strikeout rate in Double-A is a glaring red flag, and while he made more contact after a promotion to Triple-A, it could easily be a small sample fluke. Esteury Ruiz falls into a similar boat as Frelick but relies more on extremely high BABIPs.

The Brewers need to give these prospects opportunities at some point. It makes sense to keep one spot open with the expectation that one of their prospects will take hold of the position. Relying on rookies to comprise two-thirds of their outfield would be unwise.

It’s worth noting that Tyrone Taylor remains in the mix for now, but he is also a trade candidate should the Brewers seek to add depth at other positions. Furthermore, Taylor’s poor plate discipline makes him better suited as a fourth outfielder than a starter at any position.

The Brewers cannot replace Renfroe’s offensive output internally. After saving roughly $11 million, it is on the front office to wisely reinvest those savings in external additions that will improve the team. Relying on the young guns is not enough.

Trades (or any roster transaction, for that matter) do not exist within a vacuum. If the Brewers add to their lineup later this offseason, their roster will be in a better place as a whole than it was with Renfroe in the fold. Time will tell how the trade fits within the context of Arnold’s vision for next year’s team.

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