The Brewers announced to reporters, including Adam McCalvy of MLB.com, that right-hander Brandon Woodruff underwent surgery today to repair the anterior capsule in his right shoulder. He is expected to miss most or perhaps all of the upcoming season.
Woodruff, 30, has been an excellent part of the Milwaukee rotation for many years now, but the shoulder issues hounded him throughout 2023. He first landed on the injured list in April after just two starts, diagnosed with a subscapular strain in his right shoulder. He returned in August and made nine more starts down the stretch but was left off the club’s playoff roster with another shoulder issue. Now it seems he’ll have to go under the knife, which puts his 2024 season in jeopardy.
The news is obviously bad for the Brewers, given that Woodruff has been such a valuable part of the club. He has a career earned run average of 3.10 in 680 1/3 innings, posting a 28.9% strikeout rate, 6.5% walk rate and 42.7% ground ball rate. His tally of 10.3 wins above replacement from 2020 to 2022, via FanGraphs, was among the top 10 among all pitchers in baseball. Even with the shoulder injuries this year, he still managed an ERA of 2.28 in his 11 outings.
Subtracting that kind of performance from their rotation would be an unwelcome development at any time, but it’s especially awkward right now. Woodruff is about to enter his final season of arbitration control, set for a raise on the $10.8MM salary he had in 2023. MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz projected him for $11.6MM in 2024, a modest bump after his diminished workload in the past year.
As a lower-spending team, the Brewers have occasionally decided to trade notable players as their arbitration salaries increased, perhaps most infamously the Josh Hader deal from 2022. This winter has long been seen as a point where they might have to consider a similar move, with Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and Willy Adames all set to make eight-figure deals in their respective final arbitration years. It had been argued that perhaps the club could consider trading one of Burnes or Woodruff to bolster another part of the roster while leaving the rotation still in relatively decent shape, saving some money in the process.
With Woodruff now set for such an extended absence, such a plan becomes less feasible and also gives the Brewers a difficult choice of whether or not to tender Woodruff a contract at all. An eight-figure deal for a pitcher who might miss the entire season wouldn’t be an ideal use of resources, especially for a club that operates without a lot of financial wiggle room. It would be possible to make him a qualifying offer after 2024, but that would be contingent him getting healthy enough to justify such an overture, meaning there would be a lot of risk in simply signing him for one year and hoping for the best. But letting an incredibly talented pitcher like Woodruff depart for nothing isn’t appealing either.
Perhaps he and the club could work out some kind of multi-year deal that would allow him to rehab the injury in 2024 and stay in Milwaukee beyond that. Players set for significant absences such as this often find two-year deals, with the signing team aware that they are unlikely to get much value in the first season. But Woodruff would be under no obligation to sign such a deal with the Brewers. If they weren’t willing to offer him a deal he felt was fair, he could wait and see if they non-tender him, which would make him a free agent and allow him to pursue such deals with any club.
The non-tender deadline isn’t until November 17, meaning he and the club have over a month to work something out on the contract side of things. But circling back to the on-field picture, it subtracts a key piece of the 2024 rotation. Without Woodruff, the group still figures to have Burnes at the front, followed by Freddy Peralta, but things get murky after that. Wade Miley is likely to wind up a free agent since mutual options are rarely triggered by both sides. That leaves Adrian Houser, Colin Rea, Eric Lauer, Robert Gasser and Caleb Boushley as some of the potential rotation members. Aaron Ashby could be in the mix as well but missed all of 2023 due to his own shoulder injury.
It’s possible the club finds an acceptable rotation in there but there’s no doubt it would be better with a healthy Woodruff. Even in the hypothetical scenario where Woodruff or Burnes were on the trading block, that would have at least allowed the club to address a different part of the team, making it a rough blow no matter how you look at it. The Brewers just won the Central division, making the playoffs for the fifth time in six years, but it might not be as easy next year. The Cubs, Pirates and Reds all showed signs that they are ready to emerge from their respective rebuilds and the Cardinals figure to be aggressive in bouncing back from a lost season.