Trade Analysis: Brewers place faith in Jesse Winker’s bat in two-player return for Kolten Wong

The Brewers continued their active offseason on Friday with another move that subtracted from their big-league roster, trading second baseman Kolten Wong to the Seattle Mariners for outfielder/DH Jesse Winker and infielder Abraham Toro.

The move came a few weeks after the club picked up Wong’s $10 million option for 2023 and 10 days after they traded another big-league piece, Hunter Renfroe, to the Los Angeles Angels for three pitchers.

With these two trades, the Brewers have parted with two of their best hitters from 2022. Renfroe led the team with a 124 wRC+, and Wong would have come in second with a 116 mark had he made enough plate appearances to qualify.

The Wong trade differs from the Renfroe deal, which saved the Brewers roughly $11.2 million and helped them bolster the pitching depth that failed to withstand an injury-filled season.

First, it’s financially neutral. ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that Milwaukee sent $1.75 million in cash to even out the difference between Wong’s $10 million salary and Winker’s $8.25 million salary.

Second, at least one player coming to Milwaukee will be a significant contributor to their lineup, not just a depth piece.

The Brewers know Winker well from his days with the division-rival Cincinnati Reds. In five seasons from 2017 through 2021, Winker slashed .288/.385/.504 for a 132 wRC+. He drew walks at a 12% clip against a 16.5% strikeout rate as a Red, giving him a 0.73 BB/K ratio that ranked 16th among all qualified hitters during that span.

Winker has long been lethal against right-handed pitching. His 149 wRC+ against them from 2017 through 2021 ranked sixth among players with at least 1,000 plate appearances.

After a career year in 2021 that saw him post a 147 wRC+ (including a monstrous 176 wRC+ against right-handers), the Reds traded Winker to Seattle along with Eugenio Suarez for a trio of prospects.

Instead of building off his breakout campaign, Winker followed it up with the worst season of his career, slugging just .344. Due to a career-high 15.4% walk rate, he still got on base at a respectable .344 clip, enabling him to maintain an above-average output (108 wRC+). However, the Mariners were hoping for much more than that.

There were also reports of a falling out between Winker and Mariners personnel. Players and staff reportedly questioned his work ethic and disliked his attitude in the clubhouse. Shortcomings both on and off the field contributed to Seattle’s willingness to move him.

While those are concerning reports, it’s also worth noting that Winker will be a free agent after the 2023 season. A player in need of a bounce back to cash in on the open market probably isn’t going to mail it in during his platform year.

As for Winker’s on-the-field performance, General Manager Matt Arnold attributed his struggles to neck and knee injuries for which Winker has since undergone surgeries.

Winker’s plate discipline remained strong (0.82 BB/K), but his average exit velocity, barrel rate, and hard hit rate fell dramatically from 2021 to 2022. It’s reasonable to believe that nagging ailments sapped some of the pop from his bat and that those numbers could rebound with a return to health.

When he’s right, Winker is one of the best hitters in baseball against right-handed pitching, and there’s little reason to believe that he’ll return to that level with improved health.

The Brewers have needed a big bat in the heart of their order since the decline of Christian Yelich. While Winker’s dramatic splits make him a platoon bat, he figures to give the Brewers that big bat for most matchups.

Winker has always been a poor defender in the corner outfield spots, and he was especially dreadful in 2022. Defensive Runs Saved pinged him for -16 runs and Outs Above Average for -10.

The Brewers have an opening for DH duties. Using Winker primarily in that role would limit his negative impact in the field and potentially help him manage his health.

Meanwhile, the departure of Wong creates uncertainty at the keystone. Arnold was noncommittal when asked about the plan for the position moving forward.

The Brewers could still make a signing at second or third base and shift Luis Urias accordingly, but if not, Toro figures to play a role in that mix.

The switch-hitting infielder was a highly-regarded prospect with the Houston Astros and joined the Mariners last summer in a trade for Kendall Graveman. He posted a .835 OPS over his minor-league career, including a .996 OPS in Triple-A.

However, Toro has failed to translate his skills into big-league success. He limped to a 62 wRC+ in 2022 and owns a 75 wRC+ in 913 plate appearances.

While Toro has improved at elevating the ball over the last couple of seasons, his line drive and hard hit rates are extremely poor. His inability to hit the ball with authority has produced poor BABIPs, including a .198 mark in 2022.

The 25-year-old is not far removed from his prospect status and has four more years of club control remaining. He also has one option year left, so he can shuffle between Triple-A and the big leagues as needed.

Whether the Brewers unlock something in Toro or not, buying low on Winker is enough to make this a smart move for Milwaukee. They sacrificed certainty at second base but added the kind of high-upside bat their lineup has needed for the past couple of seasons.

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