For a brief time this week, the Brewers turned this maddeningly slow offseason on its head. Within a one-hour period on Thursday afternoon, Milwaukee agreed to acquire two star-caliber outfielders – free agent Lorenzo Cain and then-Marlin Christian Yelich – in moves that the club hopes will help end its five-year playoff drought in 2018. Those additions came on the heels of a year in which the Brewers were among baseball’s surprise success stories, as they entered as expected non-contenders and exited with a solid 86 wins – one fewer than Colorado, which earned the National League’s last playoff spot.
With Cain and Yelich in the fold, it would be understandable to have high expectations for the Brewers as presently constructed. Although, general manager David Stearns clearly still has work to do, particularly to improve a less-than-stellar pitching staff. Thanks in part to the Brewers’ unspectacular group of hurlers, FanGraphs is only projecting them to win 77 games at the moment. That, of course, factors in notable contributions from Cain and Yelich, who are forecast to combine for just under 7.0 fWAR.
While Stearns figures to make further moves to improve Milwaukee’s chances, including potentially dealing from the team’s outfield surplus to upgrade elsewhere, we can still offer initial judgments on the Cain and Yelich pickups. Those who follow the league know what Cain is by now – a gifted center fielder, hitter and baserunner who was likely Kansas City’s best player during his tenure there from 2012-17. Cain’s track record led the Brewers to hand him easily the offseason’s richest contract, a five-year, $80MM deal with decreasing no-trade rights as the pact progresses. Cain absolutely could live up to that payday, though red flags come in the form of his age (32 in April) and injury history (he went on the disabled list in 2012, ’13, ’14 and ’16). All things considered, did Milwaukee make the right move in signing him?
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Meanwhile, at 26, Yelich has a few prime years left, and he’s under contract for all of those seasons at eminently affordable rates. Milwaukee could control Yelich through 2022 for a combined $58.25MM, and there’s nothing to suggest he won’t be worth that money. Since he became a regular in 2014, Yelich has racked up 15.9 fWAR, with FanGraphs valuing that four-year performance at a whopping $125.6MM. He could have continued to be part of the solution in Miami, but with the Marlins in the early stages of a major teardown, they figured it would make more sense to cash in their top trade chip.
Of course, given all the pluses Yelich brings to the table, prying him out of Miami wasn’t easy. To secure Yelich, the Brewers waved goodbye to four prospects – outfielders Lewis Brinson and Monte Harrison, infielder Isan Diaz and right-hander Jordan Yamamoto. In Baseball America’s newest top 100 prospect list, which came out this past Monday, Brinson ranks 18th and Harrison 75th. There are also reasons for optimism that Diaz and Yamamoto will develop into productive major leaguers, as FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen wrote in the wake of the trade. So, it’s fair to say the Brewers took a sizable bite out of their farm system to make this deal. Was it worth it?
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