Brewers beat lockout deadline by sending Jackie Bradley Jr. back to Boston with two prospects for rightfielder Hunter Renfroe
In a stunning late-night trade pulled off before a lockout froze all player transactions, the Milwaukee Brewers significantly changed the outlook of their outfield Tuesday.
The Brewers packaged two of their better minor-league prospects, corner infielder Alex Binelas – a local product from Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and shortstop David Hamilton with disappointing, veteran outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., in a trade with the Boston Red Sox for rightfielder Hunter Renfroe, coming off the best season of his career.
Renfroe, who will be 30 in late January, fills the void the Brewers had in right field after their leading run producer in 2021, Avisaíl García, bolted via free agency to sign a four-year, $53 million deal with the Miami Marlins. The right-handed hitting slugger has two years remaining before free agency, assuming no changes in a new labor agreement.
The trade sends Bradley back to Boston, where he played for seven-plus years before leaving via free agency last season and signing a two-year deal with the Brewers that guaranteed him at least $24 million if he didn’t opt out.
Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns said he and Boston chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom first started talking about the trade Monday but it "picked up steam" as the lockout deadline approached. The Brewers announced the trade about 40 minutes before Commissioner Rob Manfred declared a lockout of players as the game's labor agreement expired without a new deal.
"This one came together pretty quickly," Stearns said. "We knew we needed to add some power back into the lineup. Hunter is a guy who has done it consistently. He's also a pretty darn good corner outfielder, so you're getting a good defender on top of it (16 assists last season and Gold Glove finalist despite 12 errors), and someone we know can put the ball in the seats, and we think will do so in our ballpark and in our division."
Asked if the looming lockout made it feel like a trade deadline day, in addition to the free agent signing bonanza across the game, Stearns said, "There were a lot of discussions today. So, to some extent, it did have that trade deadline feel."
Renfroe had a big ’21 season for the Red Sox, slugging 31 home runs with 33 doubles and 96 runs batted in over 144 games. He batted .259 with a .315 on-base percentage and .501 slugging percentage.
Renfroe was a first-round draft pick of San Diego in 2013 out of Mississippi State, where he was a teammate of Brewers pitcher Brandon Woodruff. He was traded to Tampa Bay in December 2019 in a five-player swap but was designated for assignment by the Rays after a disappointing showing during the pandemic-shortened ’20 season.
"He had a really good year last year; made a little more contact, cut down on the strikeouts (130 in 572 plate appearances)," Stearns said. "This is someone who, outside of an anomalous 60-game season in 2020, has been a very consistent player. He's always hit for power; he's always hit the ball hard. We anticipate he's going to continue to do that.
"The extra year (of control) is important to us, having that fourth year of salary arbitration (Renfroe was initially a "Super 2" player). Knowing we can bring him back in 2023 and continue to solidify our outfield situation and hopefully continue to supply that pop was part of the equation for us."
After a horrid offensive year in which he ranked among the worst hitters in the majors, Bradley exercised a player option that guaranteed a $9.5 million contract in 2022 and also kicked in a mutual option for $12 million in 2023 with an $8 million buyout.
With a $26 million salary committed to leftfielder Christian Yelich and centerfielder Lorenzo Cain due $18 million at the end of a five-year, $80 million deal, the Brewers had more than $42 million invested in three outfielders, taking into account deferred money with all three. And all three had issues – Yelich coming off the worst offensive year of his career, Cain banged up much of the year and soon to turn 35, and Bradley suffering a total collapse at the plate.
Stearns confirmed that no money was going to Boston, meaning the Red Sox would pick up the minimum $17.5 million left on Bradley's contract. Renfroe is projected to make about $7.5 million in arbitration this season, with one more year left in that process.
"There are some funds now that are freed up," Stearns said. "(Principal owner) Mark (Attanasio) and the rest of our ownership group have been consistent and supportive if there's an opportunity that makes sense, we're free to discuss them and pursue them. When we're allowed to (after the lockout), we'll continue to investigate different options to try to improve our team."
While Bradley did play his trademark standout defense, being named a finalist for the Rawlings Gold Glove Award in center, he finished the season as the worst qualifying hitter in the majors by slashing .163/6/29/.497 in 134 games with 132 strikeouts in 428 plate appearances.
Bradley was included on Milwaukee’s NLDS roster but was utilized only as a pinch-runner in the four-game series. He accounted for minus-0.7 Wins Above Replacement overall, a marked fall for a player who had previously been a stalwart on some outstanding Boston teams.
"Jackie's a really good player," Stearns said. "I can't really explain what happened this year. I'm not sure Jackie can explain what happened. This is a good player who had a really bad year. Sometimes, it's easier to believe in the good when you saw it for so long, and the Red Sox saw it pretty consistently for awhile. So, it didn't necessarily surprise me that they had some interest here."
When Cain missed considerably time with various leg injuries last season, Bradley usually filled in for him in center. Stearns indicated Tyrone Taylor now would be the primary backup at that position.
"We have a lot of confidence in Tyrone Taylor," Stearns said. "Tyrone is going to play a big part on this team next year. He can play all three outfield positions; he's a very good centerfielder. We have complete confidence in Tyrone Taylor being a really important contributor on our team next year."
Binelas, 21, was drafted in the third round (86th overall) by the Brewers out of the University of Louisville in July. In addition to being a terrific story as a local kid, Binelas showed well in his brief tenure in the minor leagues after signing for $700,000.
The left-handed third baseman/first baseman hit a combined .309/9/29/.973 in 36 games between Milwaukee’s rookie Arizona league team and Class A Carolina.
Hamilton, who turned 24 on Sept. 29, was an eighth-round pick out of Texas in 2019. A left-handed-hitting middle infielder, his main asset is speed – he swiped 52 bases in 61 opportunities in 101 games split between advanced Class A Wisconsin and Class AA Biloxi while slashing .258/8/43/.761.
The Brewers thought enough of Hamilton to send him to the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .294 and stole four bases in 14 games, to finish off his 2021 campaign.
"With both Alex and David, it's tough to give up those guys," Stearns said. "Those are two young, good players. Alex, obviously a local kid. David, someone we know pretty well as an organization. He works really hard and he turned himself into a really good player."