The Brewers Are in Win-Now Mode After Acquiring Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain
In 2016, the Milwaukee Brewers began their rebuild in earnest with a 73-win season, the sixth-worst total in the National League. Last year, they surprised everyone by winning 86 games and finished one game behind the last NL wild card spot.
I guess some rebuilds don't take as long as others, with Milwaukee officially all in to contend in 2018, thanks to two moves on Thursday that make them a whole lot better.
First, the Brew Crew traded four prospects to the Miami Marlins for outfielder Christian Yelich. Then, about an hour later, they further improved both their offense and defense with the signing of free agent center fielder Lorenzo Cain to a five-year, $80 million deal. That contract is now the largest signed so far this offseason, trumping the three-year, $60 million deal signed by Carlos Santana nearly two months ago.
Earlier this week, it was written in this space that the Brewers should be acting aggressively in the free agent and trade markets. It's nice to see they were listening, and they may not be done yet! So how much better do these moves make Milwaukee, and can they really challenge the Chicago Cubs for NL Central supremacy?
Yelich is a player that virtually every team should have been interested in acquiring. He enters the 2018 season just 26 years old and is under one of the most team-friendly contracts in baseball (owed $58.25 million over the next five years). It's an insane value that required Milwaukee to give up a haul of high-ceiling prospects for one of the best young outfielders in the game.
He is a perfect fit for a Brewers offense that needed to be improved. They scored 732 runs last season, tied with the Atlanta Braves for 20th in the league. Their offensive players tallied 16.5 fWAR last season, 18th-best in baseball. And although they hit a bunch of homers (224, tied for 7th-most), they were just 17th in on-base percentage (.322) and tied for 21st in batting average (.249).
Yelich fills those gaps nicely. He has a career line of .290/.369/.432, which includes a .282/.369/.439 triple slash last season while scoring 100 runs at the top of Miami's lineup. His consistency is also a big draw -- he's been worth 3.7, 3.5, 5.3 and 3.9 bWAR over the last four years, with fWAR totals that are even higher (4.5, 2.4, 4.5 and 4.5). Out of 289 qualified players since 2014, only 26 have a higher combined fWAR over that stretch (15.9). He's also never had a batting average below .282 in any of those seasons.
The defensive metrics liked him, too, last season, giving him a FanGraphs Def score of 2.4, one of 12 center fielders in positive territory. He won't play center, though -- he'll play a corner spot, which should improve his defensive numbers and, by extension, his overall production.
Yelich's .156 isolated power (ISO) was 12th-highest among center fielders and his .439 slugging percentage was 11th, but he set a career high in dingers in 2016 with 21. It's likely his offensive numbers get even better leaving Miami. In his career, Yelich has hit 18 of his 59 homers at home, while his .301/.374/.465 line and 128 wRC+ are both better than what he;s done at home (.278/.363/.396 line with a 113 wRC+).
Earlier this month, I mentioned the Brewers as one of the eight ideal fits for Cain's services, and they apparently agreed. The team's outfield was worth a combined -6 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) in 2017, 18th in baseball. As the team's center fielder, Cain will improve that number dramatically. He was worth +5 DRS by himself last year, tied for 7th-best among MLB center fielders.
Offensively, Cain's no slouch, either. In 645 plate appearances last season he batted .300/.363/.440 with 15 homers, 26 stolen bases, a weighted on base average (wOBA) of .347, a weighted runs created (wRC+) of 115, and a 5.3 bWAR.
Yes, he's 32, which is a bit older than most teams would like in a free agent, and it's fair to wonder if the speed upon which so much of Cain's game depends on will continue to be there over the next few years. But among all position players on the free agent market, Cain had the highest bWAR, better than J.D. Martinez (4.1), Eric Hosmer (4.0), Logan Morrison (3.6) and Todd Frazier (3.4).
The addition of Cain and Yelich should make Milwaukee one of the fastest teams on the bases, too. They were second in the Majors with 126 stolen bases last year, so adding Yelich (16 steals) and Cain (26 steals) will only help a lineup that already likes to run.
Not Done Yet
The Brewers are likely not done adding. They have been linked to free agent starter Yu Darvish, but it now appears as if the team is going to attempt to trade one of their surplus outfielders for a starting pitcher. Domingo Santana, who is 25 years old and hit 30 home runs with a .505 slugging percentage last season, is reportedly being dangled in a trade, as is outfielder Brett Phillips. Santana is a high-strikeout guy (29.3% K-rate) who plays poor defense, but he should still headline any trade for a starter.
Yelich and Cain join an outfield with Ryan Braun, who hit .268/.366/.487 with 17 dingers in 104 games, and Keon Broxton, who was a 20-20 man for Milwaukee last season, albeit with an on-base percentage of .299 and a wRC+ of 84.
For now, they'll have to settle for adding two players worth a combined 9.8 wins above replacement last season. Sure, they will be subtracting Santana's 3.0 WAR, but that still gives them an additional 6.8 WAR which, when added to their 86 wins from a year ago, gives them a win total in the low-90s.
That immediately makes them a wild-card favorite heading into the 2018 season.