Prioritizing the Wire: Are Corbin Burnes or Brandon Woodruff Must Own Options?

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It was recently revealed that both Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff would open the year as part of Milwaukee’s starting rotation.  For a team that always seems to be in need of help, can either one emerge?  Let’s take a look:

Corbin Burnes
Last season he spent time coming out of the bullpen both in the Majors and at Triple-A, so there are going to be questions about his workload (he threw a total of 116.2 innings).  There also is going to be questions about his actual skillset:

  • Triple-A – 5.15 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 9.27 K/9, 3.55 BB/9, 45.9% GB%
  • Majors – 2.61 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 8.29 K/9, 2.61 BB/9, 49.0% GB%

Don’t be misled by the drop in strikeouts upon his promotion to the Majors, as a 15.2% SwStr% supports a much greater number.  While he was operating as a reliever, he does own a minor league career 9.1 K/9 and this scouting report from Baseball America further suggests a strikeout per inning is possible:

Burnes has the four-pitch repertoire of a starter and pounds the strike zone with all of those pitches, keeping hitters on the defensive. With a quick arm action, he throws his fastball in the 93-95 mph range with natural movement, doing a good job of keeping it down in the strike zone. He relied more on his above-average mid-80s slider in 2018, which was death on righthanded hitters when he put it where he wanted. Burnes mixes in an upper-80s split-changeup and upper-70s curveball, both average, that give opponents more pitches to process.

That type of production would go a long way, especially when paired with the solid control (2.9 BB/9 over his minor league career) and the ability to generate groundballs (1.33 GO/AO in the minors).  He will need to prove that he can maintain the latter at the upper levels, as he was at 1.04 while at Triple-A, but he did improve that to 1.24 in the Majors.  If he can maintain a 50% groundball rate?  The potential to emerge as a Top 50 starter seems extremely attainable.

Brandon Woodruff
Woodruff has seen time in the Majors each of the past two seasons, posting a 4.22 ERA over 85.1 innings.  That’s not to say that there hasn’t been some impressive underlying skills, and that has added to the hype:

  • Strikeouts – 8.33 K/9
  • Control – 2.95 BB/9
  • Groundballs – 50.0%

While he has generally shown strong control, a 4.04 BB/9 over 71.1 IP at Triple-A last season is a little bit of a red flag.  You also have questions about his strikeout rate, with a 9.6% SwStr% over his time in the Majors (and back in ’17 MLB.com noted that, “Woodruff may miss fewer bats as he continues to climb the Minor League ladder, but he has the requisite command of three average-or-better pitches, not to mention strong ground-ball tendencies, to develop into a No. 3 or 4 starter”).  That is not an unreasonable mark, after he posted a 10.4% SwStr% at Triple-A in ’18 (11.0% over 75.1 IP in ’17).

Obviously there’s upside, and it’s possible that he puts it all together and produces strong numbers.  There’s also the risk that he’s moved back to the bullpen, where his stuff may simply play up better.  Keep in mind this split over his time in the Majors:

  • Starter – 5.22 ERA, 6.90 K/9, 3.53 BB/9
  • Reliever – 2.03 ERA, 11.48 K/9, 1.69 BB/9

While he’s worth the gamble, assuming he’s a lock to produce gaudy numbers and thrive as a starter would be misguided.

Waiver Wire Priority (Short-Term):

  1. Corbin Burnes
  2. Brandon Woodruff
  3. Sandy Alcantara
  4. Caleb Smith

Waiver Wire Priority (Short-Term):

  1. Corbin Burnes
  2. Brandon Woodruff

Sources – Fangraphs, Baseball America, MILB.com, Baseball Reference

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