Brewers Bet Big on the Present in Acquiring Christian Yelich, Signing Lorenzo Cain

The Brewers showed they're ready to compete in the NL Central, acquiring outfielder Christian Yelich from Miami and adding free agent Lorenzo Cain on Thursday.
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As soon as it opens, a major league team’s window of contention already has a day in the future where it will slam shut once more. It doesn’t matter how young, inexpensive, talented or fun of a core has been assembled; inevitably, a moment will arrive when that group’s best chance at a title has disappeared. Maybe it’s because a front office couldn’t or didn’t want to pay to keep the run going, as the Pirates just did; maybe it’s a team that found success but ran out of time to keep the band together, as with the Royals. Or maybe it’s a relentless combination of injuries, like the Mets (though there are financial forces at work there that harmed that franchise far beyond Matt Harvey’s balky shoulder).

Whatever the reason, nothing is guaranteed in baseball, which makes it all the more imperative for a team to strike when the proverbial iron is hot, even if you’re not the World Series favorite (or even the best bet for your division). After a season in which they surprised the National League by going from rebuilding wreck to shock contender, the Brewers have decided that, having arrived early to the potential postseason party, they want to lengthen their stay as long as possible.

On Thursday evening, Milwaukee went for it in a big way, first swinging a trade with the decrepit Marlins and landing outfielder Christian Yelich for a four-prospect package, then signing All-Star centerfielder Lorenzo Cain to a five-year, $80 million deal. By doing so, the Brewers didn’t just add two dynamic pieces to their lineup and outfield; they also announced that they’re serious about making a run at the Cubs and Cardinals in the NL Central.

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Yelich was the last man standing in the ruins of Miami’s formerly All-Star outfield. Preceded by Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna in the Marlins’ galling teardown, the former first-round pick was the youngest of the troika and, thanks to his contract, the most valuable. Yelich has another five seasons of team control remaining thanks to a seven-year extension he signed in March of 2015. And his price is bargain basement given his production: For a 26-year-old outfielder with a career .369 on-base percentage and 120 OPS+ who has posted 3.5 WAR or higher in his four full seasons in the majors, the Brewers will pay a mere $58.25 million (including a $15 million team option for 2022).

Yelich, though, is more than just biweekly checks at below-market rates. A lefty-swinging–line-drive hitter, he has a good eye, doesn’t swing-and-miss much, and is a strong base runner. Defensively, he profiles as solid if not occasionally above average in the corners, having won a Gold Glove for his work in leftfield in 2014, though defensive numbers suggest he’s stretched too far in centerfield. He should also benefit greatly from getting out of Marlins Park, which kills lefthanded power (and particularly in going to Miller Park, a haven for southpaws). Always take home/road splits with a grain of salt, but his .393 slugging percentage in Miami versus his .484 mark on the road in 2017 and a career difference of .396 and .495, respectively, suggest a change of scenery could help unlock his power.

Cain is more of a finished product. A former Brewers draft pick in 2004, Cain departed Milwaukee for Kansas City as part of the trade for Zack Greinke in 2010, then struggled for the next few years before suddenly turning into a star in ’14. Along with fellow top prospects Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon, he was a central piece of the Royals teams that won back-to-back pennants in ’14 and ’15, capping it with a World Series title in the latter year.

Once a hacker of the highest order, Cain has matured into a patient hitter who has an excellent eye (he set a career high in walk rate last year at 8.4%), prodigious gap-to-gap skills, and game-changing speed. Over the last four years, he’s put up a .300/.352/.437 line with a 113 OPS+ and 24 steals a season. To that, you can add his terrific defense in centerfield; over his career, he’s averaged +17 Defensive Runs Saved per season there. Add it all up, and he’s been worth 5.1 WAR or more three out of the last four years, including a gaudy 7.2 in his All-Star 2015 season.

There are risks with Cain, namely his age; at 32 in April, he’s no spring chicken. Then again, he’s the dictionary definition of a late bloomer. As Andy McCullough wrote in a 2014 profile, Cain didn’t play Little League and only picked up baseball as a freshman in high school; he barely knew how to field a ball, swing a bat or run the bases. And as noted by Statcast expert Mike Petriello, while Cain is on the older side, his speed in center is so good that, even with age-based decline, he still profiles as an above-average defender.

All of that makes Cain a relative bargain at $16 million per year, even if a five-year deal carries him into his late-30s. It’s a risk that most teams shied away from this offseason, but it works out well for the Brewers, if not so well for Cain in terms of money. Earlier this month, Jay Jaffe took a stab at estimating Cain’s value and landed on $100 million over five years. But with teams shunning the free-agent market and long-term contracts thanks to a variety of economic factors, it’s hard to imagine Cain doing any better in this collusion-scented winter.

Besides, it’s a leap of faith the Brewers had to take if they wanted to go all in, and especially given what they surrendered to put Yelich into blue and gold. The four players headed to Miami—outfielders Lewis Brinson and Monte Harrison, second baseman Isan Diaz, and righthander Jordan Yamamoto—represent some of the best of what their farm system had to offer. Brinson was their consensus No. 1 prospect going into 2018, earning the top individual nod from Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs while finishing 18th in Baseball America’s top-100 overall list and 32nd in Keith Law’s rankings. A toolsy outfielder acquired from Texas in the 2016 Jonathan Lucroy trade, the 23-year-old Brinson has plus power and speed to go with a cannon for an arm. He stood to steal playing time from strikeout-prone Keon Broxton and Brett Phillips in center in Milwaukee this season.

Harrison is another top-100 prospect, albeit in the bottom fourth for both BA and Law, and No. 3 within the system for BP and Fangraphs. Like Brinson, the 21-year-old Harrison has tools for days, boasting elite power and a powerful arm and also profiling as a future regular centerfielder. Diaz doesn’t rate as highly as those two, thanks in part to a down 2017 campaign in which he hit .222/.334/.376 in high A ball, but at 21, he still has plenty of time and room to grow and already offers excellent power in the middle infield. Yamamoto brings up the rear. Though the 21-year-old righty doesn’t throw hard, topping out at 94 mph, he racks up strikeouts thanks to a high-spin curveball; if nothing else, he has a future in relief.

Milwaukee will miss all four of those players, and they represent a much-needed good haul for the Marlins, who got virtually nothing in exchange for Stanton and relatively little for Ozuna. But Derek Jeter’s relentless shell game makes that a hollow victory for south Florida fans, who get to watch one more potential franchise player leave the radioactive crater that is the Marlins, who will give the 2003 Tigers a serious run for their money in the loss column. Good prospects are nice, but they don’t matter as much when a team announces with authority that things like “winning” or “competing” or “trying at all” don’t matter as much as sucking every last penny out of the enterprise as it shamelessly tanks.

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But enough ink has been spilled on the anti-competitive nightmare that is the Marlins. So let’s take this moment to celebrate a smaller-market team choosing not to bow down, either by force or by choice, and punt away contention in the name of profit and cost efficiency. Instead of targeting some nebulous, easily disrupted future, the Brewers used their payroll flexibility to get better now. The people of Milwaukee have haven’t seen their team reach the postseason since 2011, haven’t watched the Brewers win a pennant since 1982, and have never glimpsed a World Series parade wind its way down Wisconsin Avenue. For them, there is no time like the present. And even if the Brewers’ big bet blows up in their faces, the future is still a bright one, with Yelich joining an impressive under-30 core that includes Domingo Santana, Orlando Arcia, Travis Shaw, Jimmy Nelson, Corey Knebel, and Josh Hader, as well as new top prospect Keston Hiura.

There’s still plenty for the Brewers to do and figure out before fans can crack open a Miller High Life in celebration (it is the champagne of beers, after all). First and foremost is the outfield, where one of Santana or Ryan Braun needs to go to make room for the new additions. The former is more likely to be dealt, given his youth, lack of a massive contract, and production (30 home runs and a 126 OPS+ last year at the tender age of 24). Milwaukee also needs to add to its rotation, with Nelson coming off a serious shoulder injury and the crew behind him consisting of the uninspiring likes of Jhoulys Chacin and Yovani Gallardo. An ace is in order, and if the Brewers don’t want to open the checkbook once more to sign either Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta, dangling Santana as a trade chip might do the trick.

But while the offseason checklist isn’t finished, this is still a terrific pair of moves for Milwaukee. Taking full advantage of 40% of the NL Central having given up for 2018 (the aforementioned Pirates and the directionless Reds), the Brewers have set their sights on Chicago and St. Louis. The former in particular has had a quiet offseason despite needs in the lineup and rotation; the latter, like Milwaukee, got busy in the outfield by taking advantage of Jeter’s firesale to land Ozuna last month. Only one of those teams can win the division, and with Colorado and Arizona still strong, a wild-card spot is no guarantee. But even if the Brewers come up short, they still tried. They saw that their window had opened, and they put all their effort into making sure they took advantage of it. That should be commended, no matter how this turns out.

Brewers: B+/B (Yelich); B+ (Cain)

Marlins: B+ in terms of return; F on principle