Coming off a surprising 86-76 season, the Brewers found themselves in a similar position to the one the Angels are in: a decent team trying to elevate itself to playoff contention just by paying the going rate for good players. In about an hour on Thursday afternoon, they did just that, trading four prospects to Miami for outfielder Christian Yelich and signing free-agent outfielder Lorenzo Cain, most recently of the Kansas City Royals, to a five-year, $80 million contract.
The Yelich trade adds some risky but high-impact talent to a Marlins farm system that needs it, while the two moves together throw next year’s NL Central race into high gear. The breath the Cubs can feel on their necks smells like beer-battered cod.
Just under two months after offloading The Mighty Giancarlo Stanton to New York and Marcell Ozuna to St. Louis, the Marlins completed their liquidation of the best outfield in baseball. The motivation for the trade, an insistence on spending money on debt service rather than fielding a competitive team, remains disgraceful both on its face and for the shamelessness with which owner Bruce Sherman is carrying it out. But this time, the trade is defensible from a baseball point of view.
The 26-year-old Yelich is the perfect player for a Brewers team that is turning into a real threat to challenge the Cubs for the NL Central. In four and a half big league seasons, Yelich has posted a .369 OBP, and over the past two years, the rail-thin Californian has grown into 20-homer power from the left side, perhaps with more to come if he bulks up from eating cheese curds three meals a day. Yelich has been a consistent four-win player pretty much from the moment he stepped on a big league diamond, and with five years of team control left, including an option for 2022, he’s grossly underpaid. If Yelich plays out all five years, he’ll make $58.25 million between now and his age-30 season. While Stanton’s contract made the reigning MVP unattractive to trade partners, Yelich’s guarantees long-term control of a very good player at a fraction of his actual value, which makes him the perfect building block for a Milwaukee team that doesn’t spend with the likes of the Yankees and Dodgers.
To get that perfect fit for a team on the rise, Milwaukee paid dearly in prospects. The Brewers sent outfielders Lewis Brinson and Monte Harrison, infielder Isan Diaz, and pitcher Jordan Yamamoto to Miami in return. Both Baseball Prospectus and Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs rated Brinson, Harrison, and Diaz first, third, and sixth, respectively, in a pretty good Brewers farm system.
Milwaukee acquired Brinson from Texas in the Jonathan Lucroy deal in the summer of 2016 and took Harrison 50th overall in 2014, signing him to a $1.8 million bonus. Both are big, physical outfielders with flashy tools and potential to put up big power and speed numbers. Brinson’s the better prospect because, at age 23, he’s more polished, but in a cup of coffee last year, he hit .106 with 17 strikeouts in 55 plate appearances. The 22-year-old Harrison topped out at high-A last year and still has a long way to go in terms of cutting down his strikeouts and improving as a defender, but he retains his All-Star potential.
The 21-year-old Diaz is smaller (5-foot-10; both Brinson and Harrison are listed at 6-foot-3) and an infielder, but other than that, he’s a similar prospect: a great athlete who can play an up-the-middle position but needs to strike out less and convert that athleticism into usable baseball skills. Yamamoto is less exciting—a 6-foot righty who’s probably a middle reliever.
That’s an exciting package that will go a long way toward rebuilding the Marlins’ farm system, which hasn’t produced much since Stanton, Ozuna, Yelich, and José Fernández came up. Talented though they are, all three of the headliners in the deal are still projects: With good coaching, Miami could end up having traded Yelich for three above-average position players. But with bad coaching, it could end up with nothing but a stack of strikeouts.
Even so, this trade is a welcome departure from the Stanton deal. It at least has the potential to please the Marlins’ fans, not just their creditors.
With Ryan Braun in left, Yelich will likely slide in as Milwaukee’s starting right fielder. He’ll hit at or near the top of the order, with Cain alongside him in both the field and the batting order. Taken together, the pair stand to be on base frequently for Braun, Travis Shaw, and Eric Thames to drive them in.
Cain, who turns 32 in April, has quietly been one of the best center fielders in baseball since 2014. In that time, he ranks third among center fielders in bWAR (minimum 1,000 PA), behind only Mike Trout and Kevin Kiermaier, and eighth in OPS+. Over the past four seasons, he’s hit .300/.352/.437 with an average of 11 home runs and 24 stolen bases. He’s an above-average hitter, and an elite base stealer and defensive center fielder. An outfield of Cain, Braun, and Yelich would be among the best in baseball.
There are drawbacks. Cain’s game is predicated on speed and defense, and he’s a little older than ideal for a big-ticket free-agent signing: This five-year deal would take Cain through his age-36 season. But with his track record of production, $80 million would’ve been reasonable on a four-year deal, though Cain’s contract contains a no-trade clause and significant incentives, which he might value more than guaranteed money. Given the risks that his age and player profile represent, you’d expect some teams to view him as a $16 million–a-year player, but this being free agency, it’s surprising that nobody thought he was worth more or offered a substantially higher average annual value over a shorter contract. Cain’s deal is strong anecdotal evidence that the league-wide slowdown on free-agent signings has driven down salaries.
Money aside, adding Cain sets the Brewers up to make more moves. These deals leave right fielder Domingo Santana, who hit .278/.371/.505 with 30 home runs and 15 stolen bases last year, without a home. (Braun, at age 34 and with $60 million guaranteed left on his contract, would bring back less in a trade.) The Brewers could trade the 25-year-old, who’s under team control through 2021, for a starting pitcher, or they could sign Yu Darvish, as has been rumored. Alternatively, the Brewers could wait until the trade deadline to add an ace, as they did with CC Sabathia in 2008.
These moves put the Brewers at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Marlins—while Miami hunkers down for a long, self-inflicted rebuild, the Brewers have declared their intention to contend now.