Only days after signing Rhys Hoskins to a two-year deal — seemingly a signal of the team’s intentions to contend in 2024 — the Brewers shocked the baseball world by trading ace Corbin Burnes to the Orioles for Joey Ortiz, DL Hall, and a 2024 Competitive Balance Round A draft pick (34th overall). They may still have a shot at a division crown in a weak NL Central, but further reports emerging out of Milwaukee appear to support fears of a mini selloff.
The Brewers have a pair of impact players close to free agency — shortstop Willy Adames and closer Devin Williams — who they could look to deal to restock a middling farm system with upper-level talent behind uber-prospect Jackson Chourio, and Williams is the caliber of reliever who could vault the Yankees’ bullpen to the top of the heap around the league.
2023 Statistics: 61 games, 58.2 IP, 1.53 ERA (282 ERA+), 2.66 FIP, 2.79 xFIP, 37.7 percent K%, 12.1 percent BB%, 1.8 fWAR
2024 FanGraphs Depth Charts Projections: 66 games, 66IP, 3.05 ERA, 3.34 FIP, 34.1 percent K%, 11.1 percent BB%, 1.3 fWAR
Contract Status: Signed a one-year, $7.25 million contract to avoid arbitration in 2024. Will make $7 million in 2024, contract contains a team option for 2025 worth $10.5 million with a $250,000 buyout. Scheduled to become a free agent following 2025 season.
It doesn’t matter how you slice it — since his breakout in 2020, Williams has been the best reliever in baseball. His 6.8 fWAR and 1.75 ERA both rank first among qualified pitchers over that span while his 40.5 percent strikeout rate trails only Edwin Díaz and 2.26 FIP trailing only Díaz and Matt Brash. What’s more, his Statcast page is deep red.
Williams burst onto the scene winning NL Rookie of the Year in 2020 on the back of an impressive 0.33 ERA, 0.86 FIP COVID-shortened campaign. He followed it up with an impressive sophomore season that unfortunately ended on a sour note, the reliever drunkenly punching a wall during the team’s celebration of clinching the division. A broken hand meant the Brewers were without their standout setup man, and were bounced out of the NLDS by the Braves in four games, a go-ahead home run by Freddie Freeman off Josh Hader in an eighth inning that should have belonged to Williams sealing the series. To his credit, Williams rebounded from that personal disappointment to make the All-Star team in back-to-back seasons, picking up his second Trevor Hoffman NL Reliever of the Year Award in 2023.
Several times over the last year, we’ve highlighted unicorn pitchers on the Yankees and around the league, and there is perhaps no pitch in baseball that fits the label ‘unicorn’ better than Williams’ changeup. Williams’ change is different from any other around the league in that he pronates viciously over the top, giving it a spin rate that can push as high as 3,000 RPM — almost double your average changeup. Think of the pitch as a screwball or a reverse slider, its intense spin gives the pitch wicked movement — it exhibited the most horizontal movement vs. average of any changeup in baseball in 2023 while also placing in the top-ten in vertical movement.
All told, Williams’ changeup had comfortably the most overall movement of any changeup in baseball in 2023, logging the fifth-highest whiff rate (46.3 percent) of any cambio since his rookie year. Last year, Esteban highlighted the unicorn changeup Ron Marinaccio throws and in some ways it is a junior version of the one Williams throws. One can only imagine the opportunities for information exchange and shared learning should Williams join the bullpen, as he could provide an immense asset to a young pitcher who struggled in his sophomore season.
Most importantly, Williams would bring elite levels of chase and swing-and-miss to a Yankees bullpen that has lacked those attributes in recent seasons. While New York has placed at or near the top of the league by ERA and inducing weak contact for quite some time, they sat middle-of-the-pack in 2023 by metrics like whiff rate (25.3 percent, 11th out of 30), chase rate (31.9 percent, 16th out of 30), K-BB% (14.1 percent, 17th out of 30), and CSW% (28.9 percent, 8th out of 30). Since his debut, Williams has placed in the 81st percentile in chase rate while placing second in whiff rate, third in CSW%, and fourth in K-BB% among qualified relievers. And that’s not to say that Williams also doesn’t excel in the soft contact department as he’s ranked no lower than the 93rd percentile in average exit velocity against, hard-hit rate, and xwOBA in each of the last four seasons.
It’s difficult to find a comp for a prospective trade of Williams — most closers are dealt at the trade deadline and are generally pure rentals whereas Williams would come with two full years of team control if dealt before Opening Day. In fact, the closest comparison is probably his former teammate Josh Hader, who the Brewers sent to the Padres at the 2022 trade deadline for relievers Taylor Rogers and Dinelson Lamet and top prospects Esteury Ruiz and Robert Gasser. The Brewers later turned Ruiz into William Contreras, who won 2023 NL Silver Slugger at catcher, while Gasser is the team’s second-ranked pitching prospect per MLB Pipeline.
The Burnes trade could also serve as an imperfect guide, the Brewers exchanging one year of Burnes for a pair of fringe top-100 prospects who could play roles for the big league club and a first-round draft pick. Williams has six more months of team control than Hader when he was traded, though Hader’s ceiling and demand were higher at the time of the trade, while Williams has a full year more of team control relative to Burnes and will cost less than half against a team’s CBT number.
Extrapolating from these two deals, it might cost a package similar to the one that landed Burnes — two fringe top-100 prospects minus the first-round draft pick — to priy Williams from Milwaukee. Williams’ extra year of control and cheaper AAV hit boost his price, but he’s not expected to throw much more than 130 innings over the next two seasons whereas Burnes’ value as an ace starting pitcher and Baltimore’s intense need likely inflated his price. That’s a steep price to pay for two years of a reliever, but it’s one the Yankees should consider. In Williams, New York could create one of the best one-two punches of any bullpen by pairing him with Clay Holmes 2023, and he would give them a readymade Holmes replacement when the current Yankees closer hits free agency at the end of the year.