MLB: Brewers Reshape OF With Christian Yelich & Lorenzo Cain

The Brewers mean business in 2018.

After a surprising 2017 campaign that didn’t end up with a playoff berth, the Brewers have been linked to many top free agents and trade candidates this off-season.   Two of those players have now landed in their lap, one via the trade route and one via free agency.

I will start with the free agent signing, because that only requires looking at one player and money.  The Brewers signed Lorenzo Cain, a center fielder who will likely push Christian Yelich to a corner outfield spot, to a 5-year, $80 million contract this evening.  There has been a lot of talk about the slow market (and rightfully so), but Cain proved tonight that a slow market does not necessarily mean prices are going to plummet.

Cain’s career has now come full circle, as he started it with the Brewers organization.  He was shipped to the Royals in a package that netted the Brew Crew Zack Greinke.

Known for his defensive prowess (though he has started to decline in this area), Cain has also turned himself into a capable offensive performer.    From 2014-2017, Cain has put together a .300/.352/.437 (113 OPS+) batting line with 96 stolen bases in 114 attempts.    This is important, because if his defense were to slip to average levels, his offensive production may still validate his contract in the last year or two.     The Brewers, however, didn’t offer this contract worrying about 2021 or 2022.  They are seeing a window of opportunity opening, and are attempting to cash in while they have the chance.  Cain significantly improves their playoff chances for the next few seasons at least.  This deal should turn out to be a winner.

The move that started the chain of events tonight was the trade for Yelich.  The Brewers gave up four players in the deal, and this time around, the Marlins were not fleeced.

In Yelich, the Brewers get a young, established outfielder who has still not fully broken out at the big league level, though he has hardly been a flop.   In 2017, at the age of 25, he posted a .282/.369/.439 triple slash in 695 plate appearances while playing center field for the Marlins.  He won’t be playing center field in Milwaukee, however, since Cain is a better defensive player.   Overall, Yelich already has 643 games of MLB experience under his belt, with an acceptable .290/.369/.432 (120 OPS+) batting line.  While Aaron Judge was all the rage as a rookie outfielder in 2017, it should be noted that he is only approximately four months younger than Yelich.  To hit like Yelich has hit by the time he even turned 26 years old is impressive, and he still has room to be better.   The knock, of course, is that he will have to move to a corner outfield position, a position that demands offensive output.  While a season similar to his career batting line would be acceptable, the Brewers are likely hoping for Yelich to add more power to his game this season.  He already has the plate discipline to be a solid on-base contributor.   If he can add some extra power to his arsenal, he would become a star corner outfielder.  Of course, if I added $999,000 to my bank account, I would be a millionaire.  I do like him as a ballplayer, but as a corner outfielder, he is going to need to blossom more.

To get a young player with Yelich’s history and potential, you have to give something up, and the Brewers did just that.

The most intriguing player of them all is outfielder Lewis Brinson, who should instantly jump to the top of the Marlins prospect list (the Marlins have a notoriously bad farm system, so adding Brinson to it will give it a nice boost)  The 23-year old made his MLB debut in 2017, though he only went to the plate 55 times.  With Triple-A Colorado Springs (PCL), he hit .331/.400/.562 in 340 at-bats.  As is the case with every hitter in the PCL, take those numbers with a grain of salt.   This isn’t so much about the numbers as it is about his baseball ability.  Brinson, who was acquired from the Rangers in the Jonathan Lucroy deal in 2016, has power and speed, and should be able to stick in CF.  The biggest question mark revolves around whether or not he will be able to make consistent contact against MLB pitching.    If he can figure that part of his game out, he has a chance to develop into an All-Star caliber center fielder, and given that Yelich likely won’t even play much CF anymore, that in itself could make this deal a win for the Marlins.

Of course, the Marlins received more than just Brinson.    Isan Diaz, considered a top 100 prospect in his own right, will also instantly jump into the Marlins’ Top 5.  Some could even argue he is #2, right behind Brinson himself.  The 21-year old middle infielder had a tough campaign in 2017, hitting .222/.334/.376 in 110 games for the Brewers’ High-A affiliate.   While the line as a whole is nothing to write home about, Diaz did draw 62 walks while hitting 13 home runs.  He showed flashes of why he was regarded as a top infield prospect, but couldn’t put it all together consistently.    2018 will be a huge season for him, as he can’t afford to slip into an abyss at the plate.  In the field, he is widely regarded as being good enough to stay at second base or shortstop.  His offensive potential is what makes him especially intriguing, as teams drool over middle infielders with home run pop in their bats.

Outfielder Monte Harrison has massive boom/bust potential.  The 22-year old had 51 extra-base hits in 122 games between Low-A and High-A in 2017, though he also struck out 139 times in those contests.  An athletic freak of nature, Harrison was recruited to play football for Nebraska, but decided to instead concentrate on baseball.   He is still considered a raw talent, but is exactly the type of player the Marlins should target as a deal sweetener as they reshape their franchise.   If Harrison (who has played all three outfield positions) can continue to develop into “baseball player” over “athlete who happens to play baseball”, he is going to be a steal in this trade.   It is not hard to imagine that he will also find himself in the Top 5 on Marlins prospect lists.

The last player acquired in the deal was the obligatory pitching prospect who always gets attached to these trades.   Jordan Yamamoto is a smallish right-handed pitcher who won the ERA title in the Carolina League in 2017.  He pitched to a 2.51 ERA in 111 innings with a 113/30 K/BB ratio.  That is all impressive, but the 21-year old who was drafted in the 12th round in 2014 isn’t considered a big pitching prospect.  He lacks a third pitch, which could put his future in the bullpen.  He would need his velocity to tick up to become a viable MLB reliever down the line, so his chances of getting to the big leagues are certainly lower than everyone else on this list.   However, as a 4th piece in a strong package, he is worthwhile to the Marlins.  They can afford to be patient.

Bottom Line:   The more I look at this trade, the more I think the Marlins made themselves an outstanding trade.  They acquire three prospects ranked in the Top 10 of a strong Milwaukee Brewers’ farm system, all of whom have been found on various Top 100 Prospect lists over the past few years.  While Diaz has lost some stock after his down 2017 campaign, Harrison’s stock has risen.    While prospect rankings within a system are relative, it is still quite a catch when you can acquire three prospects who should all instantly become Top 5 prospects in your system.  The Marlins pulled that off today, and because of that, I have to consider this day a big win for them.

It was still a good day for the Brewers as well, of course.  They acquired two good MLB outfielders, which will allow them to flip young talent to acquire a starting pitcher, as they still need rotation help.   They have the prospect depth to go hard after some of the top pitchers on the trade market, though they can also still ip their toes into the Yu Darvish or Alex Cobb waters.    They are trying to close the gap on the Cubs, Diamondbacks, and Rockies, while attempting to distance themselves from teams like the Cardinals.   Today was not a big home run for the Brew Crew, given that they had to give up a lot of young talent to acquire Yelich.   However, they improved their position for 2018 (and likely beyond), which also makes them a winner for the day.


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