Milwaukee Brewers general manager David Stearns — or The Wizard, as I like to call him — wasted no time making headlines in the Winter Meetings. In just the second day, the Brewers traded away their best reliever (Tyler Thornburg) for an everyday player (Travis Shaw) and two prospects (Mauricio Dubon and Josh Pennington) and PTBNL or cash considerations.
Now, I’m not going to dive deep into what exactly the Brewers gave up in Thornburg, but just know that he ranked 15th in adjusted ERA and 18th in adjusted FIP among qualified relievers last season. Thornburg is good. Really good, actually. But there were some warning signs that the Brewers were aware of. For example, Thornburg has quite an extensive injury history, so who knows when/if he’ll break down again, and 2016 was really his only season of note. Milwaukee traded him at the most opportune time and got a good haul in return.
Let’s talk about that haul.
Travis Shaw is the known player in this deal and will be the everyday third baseman for the Brewers in 2017. That means Jonathan Villar (3.0 WAR in ’16) will move to second base — where he’ll likely have more success than he did at third — and Scooter Gennett (0.1 WAR) will be forced to battle for playing time, unless he’s ultimately traded.
Shaw is a better defender than he is a hitter, but at 26 years old, there’s still some untapped potential in his bat. Last year, Shaw posted an 87 wRC+ (13 percent below league average), a .310 wOBA and a .306 OBP. His stats were definitely down from his rookie campaign in 2015, but he still managed to post the same WAR (1.5), thanks to improved defense at the hot corner. Shaw is an immediate upgrade over Hernan Perez, although Perez still figures to see at bats versus lefties, as Shaw accumulated a measly 51 wRC+ in limited time against southpaws a year ago. Still, Stearns said Shaw will have the opportunity to improve, and more plate appearances should only help that.
Shaw, along with newly signed Eric Thames, provides a left-handed power bat to a right-handed heavy lineup, and although he should help the Brewers for years to come — he isn’t eligible for free agency until 2021 — he isn’t the most exciting piece of the trade return.
Before we get to the player I like the most, let’s first focus on Josh Pennington. Pennington turned 21 seven months ago and has yet to pitch above Low-A ball. He was drafted in the 29th round in 2014, falling in the draft after undergoing Tommy John surgery as a senior in high school. The Brewers, however, believe he’s rebuilt his arm strength, and reports claim he sits in the mid-to-high 90s with his fastball.
Pennington started 13 games in Low-A last season, and racked up a 2.86 ERA and 3.75 FIP. He struck out fewer than eight batters a game and struggled with command (4.29 BB/9), but there’s still a lot to like about this hurler. First and foremost, he’s young and controllable, which is exactly what Stearns has been targeting since becoming the GM. Plus, Pennington just doesn’t have enough experience to be accurately judged yet. His numbers I posted above don’t really mean much without context. His arsenal and ability to hit the high 90s is more telling of his future performance, so at the very least Pennington has a high floor.
Here’s what Stearns had to say about his new pitcher, via Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
“He pitched healthy all of last year,” Stearns said. “We’re excited to be able to bring that type of high-upside arm into the system. “It takes a little while sometimes for guys to regain arm strength after Tommy John, and we believe he has.”
Pennington will be a wait-and-see prospect. The Brewers like him, but until he moves up to Single-A, Double-A, etc and starts facing stiffer competition, he’s little more than a lottery ticket that could pay huge dividends.
The third player the Brewers received from Boston is 22-year-old shortstop Mauricio Dubon. Dubon, in my opinion, makes this a home run trade for Milwaukee, as I think he can be an above-average hitter and fielder in the major leagues. He’s already proven he can hit in the minors, and he might be just a season or two away from his debut.
Dubon once profiled as a slap hitter, posting high ground-ball rates throughout his time in the minors, yet that changed when he went up to Double-A halfway through the 2016 season. In 269 plate appearances, Dubon registered a 151 wRC+ and got on base 37 percent of the time, and he showed some pop as well, with six home runs and a plethora of extra-base hits. Now, he won’t be a power hitter in the majors, but his contact ability is extremely encouraging, and that alone could make him an everyday player.
Because the Brewers already have stud defensive shortstop Orlando Arcia, they plan to use Dubon’s versatility at multiple infield positions in the minors, but according to Stearns, for at least this upcoming season, he’ll stick at shortstop.
The Red Sox got a top reliever in Thornburg, and the Brewers added more exciting prospects to an already stacked bunch. Boston gave up a lot, but with the news trickling in that they signed Chris Sale, it’s clear they’re going for it all in 2017. As for Milwaukee, Shaw will be an instant contributor, Pennington is somewhat of an unknown and Dubon could be the far-and-away best player in this trade.
The Wizard strikes again.