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Brewers haven’t initiated extension talks with ace Corbin Burnes

Brewers right-hander Corbin Burnes is getting near the end of a third straight excellent campaign, establishing himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball. After this season, he will have just two years of team control remaining, making him a fairly logical extension candidate. However, Burnes tells Adam McCalvy of that no such talks have taken place yet.

“You would think,” Burnes said when asked if this offseason would be a good time to get negotiations started. “You would think maybe there would have been some initial talks last offseason, but nothing.”

Burnes struggled a bit to get acclimated to the majors, especially in 2019. That year, he allowed an incredible 17 home runs in just 49 innings, producing a shocking 38.6% HR/FB rate and 8.82 ERA. However, he righted the ship immaculately in 2020, throwing 59 2/3 innings in the shortened season with a 2.11 ERA, 36.7% strikeout rate and 46.4% ground ball rate. His 10% walk rate was a bit high, but it was still an excellent breakout.

Though some might have written this off as a small sample flash-in-the-pan, Burnes quickly erased those concerns in 2021. He threw 167 innings that year with a 2.43 ERA, 35.6% strikeout rate, 48.8% ground ball rate and cut his walk rate effectively in half to 5.2%. He was awarded the National League Cy Young for that elite season and has been pitching at almost the same level again in 2022.

Though the Brewers are surely delighted to have seen Burnes blossom to this degree, it does mean that he will become expensive. He reached arbitration for the first time last offseason and is earning $6.5M in 2022. Since he’s having another excellent season, he’ll be due another hefty raise for 2023 and likely for 2024 as well. For a pitcher of Burnes’ caliber, it will still be incredible value, though it does raise the possibility of the team considering a trade. After all, the Brewers did just send out another excellent pitcher who was getting expensive: Josh Hader.

Hader isn’t an exact apples-to-apples comparison to Burnes, as he’s a reliever and also qualified for Super Two status, meaning he would get four trips through arbitration instead of three. There are similarities as well, though. By the time of his trade this year, Hader was making $11M and had a year and a half of team control remaining. Burnes will likely be making a similar salary next year and will have the same amount of control when the deadline is rolling around. The parallels aren’t lost on Burnes.

“For anyone who isn’t on a long-term deal, once you get into your later years of arbitration, anything can happen,” Burnes said. “We saw it with Hader. We might see it this offseason. I don’t know what route the front office is going to take.” Burnes then added, “Who knows what’s going to happen this offseason. Who knows what’s going to happen at the next trade deadline. At this point, there’s a couple of guys remaining from our 2018 and ‘19 postseason teams, and it’s like, this could be maybe the last year. Maybe next year is the last year. Maybe we get two more years. We don’t really know. It’s hard to look at it like that but you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

With most other teams, it would be a no-brainer to keep an ace like Burnes through arbitration and perhaps even extend him. The Brewers have never really been huge spenders, however, and financial concerns will creep into anything they do. They ran an Opening Day payroll of $132M this year, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. That placed them 19th among the 30 teams in the league, spending less than half of what teams like the Dodgers and Mets spend, though it still represented a franchise high.

Lorenzo Cain’s contract will be off the books following this year, which will open up room for another significant deal beside Christian Yelich on the ledger. However, Burnes isn’t the only player that Milwaukee will have to think about. Brandon Woodruff, Willy Adames, Adrian Houser and Eric Lauer are in the same position as Burnes, going through arbitration with free agency approaching after the 2024 season. If the Brewers have some payroll space to work with, they might want to use it on some of that group instead of Burnes, as they would all likely be slightly behind him on the earnings scale.

An extension for a pitcher of Burnes’ caliber wouldn’t be cheap, after all. Since February of 2014, there have only been six extensions given to starting pitchers between four and five years of service time, which is where Burnes will be this winter. Of those six, one of them was for veteran journeyman Wade LeBlanc, who is not a good comparison for Burnes. Neither is Mike Clevinger, who signed a two-year deal covering his final arbitration seasons while he was about to undergo Tommy John surgery. The Rockies recently gave extensions to Kyle Freeland and German Marquez, who each got five years and over $50M, despite being nowhere near Burnes’ level. Kyle Hendricks got $55.5M over four years back in 2019 after years of solid performance, though not quite at the elite tier Burnes has reached so far.

Perhaps the best comparison is Jacob deGrom, who signed a four-year, $120.5M extension in March of 2019. He had already agreed to a $17M salary for 2019, with this new extension covering four years beyond that. deGrom had just finished a phenomenal 2018 season wherein he threw 217 innings with a 1.70 ERA, 32.2% strikeout rate, 5.5% walk rate and 46.4% ground ball rate. While that 1.70 ERA is slightly better than those that Burnes has posted, the other numbers are quite comparable. deGrom was also going into his age-31 season, reflecting his late-bloomer trajectory. Burnes turns 28 in October, meaning he could quite reasonably expect a longer commitment than what deGrom got.

Only once have the Brewers gone into nine-figure territory on a contract, which was the nine-year, $188.5M extension given to Yelich in March of 2020. That deal is still on the books for a good while, paying Yelich $26M annually from now until the end of the 2028 season. Extending Burnes would require adding another contract with an average annual value in that vicinity, possibly even higher. If the club continues running out payrolls similar to this year’s $132M Opening Day figure, extending Burnes would mean close to half their budget being used on just two players.

Thanks largely to an excellent pitching staff, the Brewers have been consistently competitive in recent years, despite the modest spending. They’ve qualified for the postseason in each of the previous four seasons, including a pair of division titles. Despite a rough stretch here in late 2022, they’re still in the mix to make the playoffs again, sitting two games behind the Padres for the final wild card spot. However, with many of their core players continuing to earn higher salaries, they might have to make some tough decisions about who they want to try to keep and who’s a candidate to follow Hader out of town.

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