This has been the offseason of feast or famine. For a wide variety of reasons, it's been an excruciatingly slow winter. When we're finally graced with some sweet, sweet hot-stove snow, it's not a gentle dusting, it's a full-on transaction blizzard wonderland. Want to ruminate on the Shohei Ohtani signing for a week? Nah, here's a Giancarlo Stanton trade. What's that? Houston acquired Gerrit Cole from the Pirates? Yeah, sorry, gotta move on, we need to talk about how they traded Andrew McCutchen to San Francisco now.
Well, it's been almost two weeks since Pittsburgh let loose their deluge, and the Brewers have decided to release their own and, in the process, announced that they're ready to contend again after an extremely short (by today's non-Yankee standards) rebuild. Late in the day, in a matter of hours, they announced a deal with the Marlins to acquire outfielder Christian Yelich for a bushel of prospects and then moved on to perhaps the biggest free agent signing of the offseason in Lorenzo Cain. The famine is over and it's time to feast.
First, a few facts. Last season, Milwaukee went 86-76 and missed out on a Wild Card spot by one game. While they were certainly a surprise contender, they didn't flukily outperform either their Pythagorean expected record (85-77) or their BaseRuns expected record (84-78). If they had just been a little bit better last year, they would have made the postseason. They didn't do too much at the trade deadline, which was probably the right call at the time, but then you start thinking about how they only missed the postseason by one game and you think to yourself, "if they only could have been a little bit better."
It's fair to say that the Brewers just got more than a little bit better last week. We'll approach GM David Stearns' moves in chronological trade order and start with Yelich, who left the Marlins in exchange for a big bushel of prospects: outfielders Lewis Brinson and Monte Harrison, infielder Isan Diaz and RHP Jordan Yamamoto.
In four-plus MLB seasons, Yelich has hit .290/.369/.432, good for a 121 wRC+. Thanks to that slashline, some solidly respectable corner-outfield defense and being smart on the bases, he's been worth 17.7 bWAR and 17.2 fWAR over that time. If we round a little (18 WAR, 4.5 seasons), Yelich has been good for approximately 4 WAR per season he's stepped on the field, which would have made a noticeable difference for Milwaukee last season.
While it's obviously oversimplistic to tack on a player's WAR and talk about the could'ves and would'ves, if we go the overly simplistic route and just swap out Yelich for the Brewers' best outfielder last season, Domingo Santana (3.0 bWAR, 3.3 bWAR), that alone would have been enough to mess up the standings and potentially put Milwaukee in the postseason, before we even get to Cain (and the fact that they will still have Santana and Ryan Braun in the outfield, but more on that later).
Yelich just turned 26 and, thanks to the team-friendly contract he signed with Miami before the 2015 season, is set to make $58.25 million over the next five seasons ($43.25 million through the 2021 season with a $15 million team option or a $1.25 million buyout in 2022). I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that one thing that those numbers fail to account for is the fact that Yelich is moving from a ballpark that's unkind to left-handed hitters to one that is quite kind to he and his ilk. Yelich's .396 SLG at home versus his .495 SLG away at least hints at the possibility that he might up his power threat in his new home, even if will have to wait and see if that pans out.
Given how productive Yelich has been (regardless of his environs), along with a steal of a contract, it would be reasonable to expect Milwaukee to pay, and pay they did. Miami received some serious crème de la crème from Milwaukee's farm system, as Brinson (1st), Harrison (3rd) and Diaz (6th) all notched spots in the Brewers' top-ten prospect lists (by both Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus). But, as always with prospects, there are question marks. Brinson, he of the number one spot, had 55 PAs in 2017 and hit .106 with 17 Ks. It's quite likely that he'll do better in the future (he has the tools for it), but Yelich is already a proven player who will make his team better now.
So, yeah, the Brewers gave up quite a bit to procure Yelich's services. But Yelich is also an excellent player who will likely be even more excellent in his new home ballpark. This is the kind of move that makes a team that's just a little shy of a postseason spot no longer shy of that spot and a totally reasonable one based on the numbers we have to examine.
Grade for the Brewers: B
We're here mostly to focus on the Brewers' moves, and not another editorial on the shitshow that is the new Marlins' ownership group. Were we assessing this trade in a vacuum, and the Marlins were normal rebuilding team with a cost-controlled, rather excellent outfielder to trade, this deal would look normal, maybe even a win for Miami. They moved said cost-controlled, rather excellent outfielder for a bunch of prospects, with plenty of premium pedigree in the mix. This is what you do when you're about to lose many games and need to rebuild.
That being said, they already basically gave away two-thirds of the best outfield in baseball to get to this point, which is kind of a big deal. So, yeah, I guess this was a good move if you pretend that the Ozuna and Stanton trades didn't exist. But I guess that's what we do for the purposes of this exercise, since Miami didn't have the best outfield in baseball anymore. They just had Yelich, who they traded for a bunch of prospects who might turn into excellent players (like Yelich) one day.
Grade for the Marlins: (holds nose...) A-
(unplugs nose and blows it to remove the Marlins' ownership stench… looks at kleenex and sees snot in shape of a cartoon Jeffrey Loria saying "Re2pect"... vomits… sends warmest condolences to Marlins fans...)
But the Brewers didn't just add one outfielder. In less than the time it takes you to thoroughly enjoy Songs in the Key of Life, they also signed Lorenzo Cain to an $80 million, five-year deal (with a no-trade clause that decreases over the life of the contract), finally putting a blessed end to the upper-tier free agent impasse we have been at since the time of our fathers (or so it seems to me).
Cain (32) may not have Yelich's youth on his side, but he was one of the choicest free agents on the market this year with good reason. Since 2014, he's hit .300/.352/.437 and quietly been one of the best center fielders in MLB. Last season, he posted the best BB% (8.4) and K% (15.5) of his career, while still playing a plus-defensive center field and being one of the better baserunners in MLB.
In an offseason where we're talking about the owners colluding and the best players are seemingly waiting for Godot, Cain managed to procure a contract that exceeded expectations in an environment of lowered expectations. It's almost a certainty that this contract will play out as normal free agent signings, with the Brewers reaping the benefit over the next couple of years and then paying for it as Cain declines. That's the way these things are supposed to work, and the Brewers could afford to make this deal this offseason, but I am not even sure how to grade the deal, because I've forgotten how to grade free agent signings.
Grade for Cain: Hamster
Grade for the Brewers: Pasta
Returning to the big picture, the Brewers may have gotten better, but they aren't alone. The Cubs have been addressing one of their weaknesses from last season and revamping their bullpen, signing Tyler Chatwood and Brandon Morrow and re-signing Brian Duensing. The Cardinals made a handful of smaller moves and one big one, in receiving the gift of one Marcell Ozuna from Miami. The Brewers have declared their intentions and I admire them for it. They are a better team now, and hopefully they didn't jump the gun on their rebuild.
The Brewers now have one of the best outfields in baseball and a glut of outfielders that they're going to have to figure out what to do with. A pitching trade involving Santana could be in the works and then we might have to revisit all this. In the meantime, though, the Brewers needed to be a little bit better last year, and they just got a lot better.
Overall Grade for the Brewers: B (for "Brewers," or maybe for "better, "because I've seriously forgotten how to do this)