Remaking an Outfield in 60 Minutes

cainWithin an hour or so last week, the Brewers committed over $124 million to two outfielders, taking on Christian Yelich’s contract in trade ($44.5 million) and signing outfielder Lorenzo Cain to a 5-year, $80 million deal.  It’s a huge monetary outlay; to date, the Brewers’ most lucrative contract went to Ryan Braun’s 5-year, $105 million extension in 2011.  The deals were made all the more significant by the substantial prospect haul the Marlins received in return for Yelich: consensus top-25 outfielder Lewis Brinson, as well as well-regarded OF Monte Harrison and IF Isan Diaz.  The deals marked an aggressive commitment to contending baseball where, in past seasons, the focus was on stockpiling young, controllable talent.

While the Brewers paid a hefty sum in money and prospects, they brought back clear major league talent that marks a substantial improvement in their outfield corps.  After showing offensive flashes in 2016, RF Domingo Santana put up an eye-popping .372 wOBA last year, but struck out in nearly 30% of his plate attempts.  Defensively, Santana gets pretty low marks using the Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) metrics.  While Yelich has never had an offensive season quite as good as Santana’s 30-homer binge in 2017, the 26-year-old is an annual 20-home run threat with excellent contact and plate discipline.  Defensive metrics (a substantial portion of which were, granted, based on his work in left field) are fairly kind to Yelich.  All said, he’s accumulated nearly 16 fWAR in his four full seasons.  If we assume that a win is worth about $8 million, and that Yelich will continue to produce about 3.9 fWAR for the remainder of his deal, he will produce about $100 million in excess value over the life of his contract.

Perhaps the more marked improvement is in center field, where Lorenzo Cain is now expected to roam.  In 2017, that was Keon Broxton’s territory, and despite having a 20 HR/21 SB season, Broxton was the definition of average.  He compiled just a .308 wOBA, struck out in nearly 38%(!) of his plate attempts, and took a step back defensively from an otherwise solid 2016 campaign.  Expect no such struggles from Cain, who has been an elite defender and all-around offensive contributor the last four seasons with Kansas City (+17.9 fWAR).  Statcast tells us Cain is one of the premier players in baseball.

There are a couple red flags with Cain, but they involve the difficult task of predicting an aging curve and injuries.  Cain will be 32 in April, but that’s not necessarily a cause for concern.  While no player has yet escaped Father Time, Cain’s ceiling is so high that there’s a lot of room for decline.  And Mike Petriello notes there are plenty of late-career success stories for players comparable to Cain.  Cain’s injury history is more problematic; Cain played an abbreviated 2016 schedule after landing on the DL in June with a hamstring injury, and Cain tried to play through a painful wrist injury before ending his season in September.   Yet Cain was still worth +2.5 fWAR in that season, and showed no ill effects in a fantastic 2017 campaign where he hit for a .140 ISO, swiped 26 bags, and was an above-average CF according to UZR.  One thing to keep an eye on will be Cain’s defense, though, and particularly his range, as there is a clear downward trend in his zone rating attributable to reduced range and ability to keep baserunners from advancing.

But again, the point here is that both transactions make the Brewers better now, and for the foreseeable future. The moves bring long-term stability to a lineup that has seen near constant turnover in the David Stearns era.  Yelich and Cain will join Ryan Braun as (presumably) the primary outfield trio until at least 2020.  There’s the potential for an additional year together if Ryan Braun’s 2021 option kicks in.  Cain and Yelich become free agents together in 2022.

The moves have the added benefit of preserving flexibility.  The Brewers total projected payroll for 2018 currently sits at around $84 million.  That drops to $72 million in 2019 and $64 million in 2020, though there are some arbitration salaries, for example Jimmy Nelson and Zach Davies, that are not included in those totals.  Signing Cain in particular does not mean the Brewers have to forego signing another premium free agent in the next year or two, and indeed they are rumored to still be in the dogfight for Yu Darvish this offseason.

Making a substantial improvement to a team while achieving stability and preserving flexibility isn’t an easy task.  David Stearns and the Brewers’ baseball operations department deserve much credit for their efforts at remaking the outfield, in which us fans got to see the reward for months of work over the course of about 60 minutes.


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