The Milwaukee Brewers acquired two thirds of a world class outfield before the 2018 season, trading for Christian Yelich and signing Lorenzo Cain in free agency. Yelich has been one of the best players in baseball since joining Milwaukee, and Cain was excellent in 2018 before injuries and age slowed him somewhat in 2019. Few teams in baseball would take their center and right field pairing over Milwaukee’s.
But as I learned in third grade math, two thirds is less than one. Left field has been a hodgepodge over the last two years. In 2018, the team relied on a combination of Ryan Braun, Eric Thames, Domingo Santana, and even Hernán Pérez to fill innings. That was mostly okay, though the team wasn’t satisfied; they sent Santana to Seattle in the offseason in exchange for Ben Gamel in an attempt to patch up the outfield.
In 2019, it was more of the same. Braun and Gamel got the majority of the playing time and were fine. Trent Grisham had a late-season cameo replacing Yelich and looked to be the left fielder of the future, but the team sent him to San Diego to shore up other holes in the roster earlier this offseason. The team also cut ties with Thames (and traded Jesús Aguilar during the season), so Braun will be covering first base in 2020. Put it all together, and the team was sorely in need of outfield help.
That help arrived yesterday in the form of Avisaíl García. Fresh off of a one year stint in Tampa that rehabilitated his market, García signed a two year, $20 million deal to join the Brewers, as first reported by Jon Heyman. He immediately profiles as a starter, with Gamel likely taking away some starts against right-handed pitchers. Braun is now free to move to first base, something that was always likely given his age and speed. But now it’s in service of getting a new, Braun-esque bat into the lineup, rather than in service of freeing up Gamel.
García, it should be said, is far from a stable commodity. He was outstanding in 2017, with a 138 wRC+ over nearly 600 plate appearances with the White Sox, though his batting line was propped up by a spicy .392 BABIP. In 2018, it all fell apart; his defense got worse, his BABIP cratered to .271, and he walked less while striking out more. He was nearly replacement level as he reached free agency, which cleared the way for the Rays to sign him.
In Tampa, García turned in a season somewhere between his stellar 2017 and poor 2018. He compiled a 112 wRC+, again driven by a strong record on batted balls, though this time with a more reasonable .340 BABIP. He walked a little, didn’t strike out too much, and hit for enough power to get by; essentially an average batter in terms of everything but BABIP. And those batted ball results weren’t purely fluky; Statcast saw his expected BABIP, given his speed and batted ball characteristics, as .343, more or less bang on his actual number.
In the field, he put together his best season by DRS and second best by UZR. Statcast’s outs above average also liked his defense, and in fact liked it even in 2017 and 2018, when the other advanced defensive systems were more skeptical. Even if he’s as bad as he ever was in the outfield, however, he likely represents an upgrade on Braun, who is 36 and was one of the worst outfielders in baseball by OAA last year.
If you ask the Brewers what they expect of García, they’d likely tell you they hope he’ll be an All-Star who forms a star-studded trio of outfielders that anchors the team. That’s certainly possible, but I suspect that if you could get the truth out of them, they’d tell you they expect him to be essentially a league average player. He’s 28, young enough that a decline seems unlikely, which means that they’re looking at that average production over the next two years.
Does that make this acquisition a good one for the Brewers? It depends heavily on how you view their team. The Brewers rode a scintillating September to a Wild Card berth in 2019, only to run into destiny and Juan Soto in the single elimination round. They won the division in game 163 in 2018. If that’s their level in 2020, this signing makes a lot of sense. Contending teams can’t afford black holes at outfield corners, and García is a hell of a lot better than a black hole.
But I think it’s probably somewhat optimistic to view the Brewers in 2020 as a presumptive playoff team. They lost two of their most productive players in 2019 — Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas — to free agency. Their pitching staff is also enduring a ton of turnover — midseason acquisitions Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Lyles, and Drew Pomeranz are gone, as are internal options Junior Guerra, Jimmy Nelson, Zach Davies, and Chase Anderson.
Even ignoring those departures, Steamer and ZiPS weren’t enamored with the Brewers going into 2019, and the team hardly blew its critics away. They won 89 games, but outperformed their Pythagorean record (their run differential on the year was an uninspiring +3) by eight wins and their BaseRuns record by four wins. Take that talent level and trade out Moustakas and Grandal for Luis Urías and Omar Narváez, and you have a team on the outside looking in. With Cincinnati looming as a new contender in the Central and Chicago and St. Louis treading water, the Brewers needed to be assertive this offseason to keep pace.
This move doesn’t rise to that bar. Braun and Gamel combined for 2.8 WAR last year; in 2018, Braun and friends were somewhere around 2.5 WAR. That looks like a reasonable projection for Garcia and Gamel in 2020, but flat isn’t enough for a team with so much wood to chop at other positions, and they aren’t making an enormous upgrade at first base by moving Braun there either.
That’s not to say that the team is paying too much for García. This contract looks like a reasonable number for a reasonable player; the second year might raise eyebrows, but the AAV is bang on what Kiley predicted as part of our Top 50 Free Agent ranking, and García is young enough that there’s no reason to think his services should be wildly differently priced in 2021. $10 million for a league average player who is still 28 sounds like a savvy move on the team’s part.
But the larger picture is still confusing. The Brewers don’t run big payrolls; they have taken a small-budget approach of constructing average players out of minor leaguers, trades, and the waiver wire. They’ve spent on stars in free agency or tried to acquire them in trade; Yelich is on a phenomenally team-friendly contract and cost the team several top prospects, while Cain and Grandal were marquee free agents.
I would have pursued a similar approach in 2020. The team clearly doesn’t agree with me; they weren’t a rumored destination for any of the top tier pitchers that have signed this offseason, and the cupboard is pretty bare at this point. Brett Anderson, Eric Lauer, and Josh Lindblom, all of whom the team has acquired in the last month, fit the old Brewers plan of cobbling together wins. That left some payroll room for a big splash. But by filling García into left field, the team is out of positions where they could make said splash; only starters and relievers remain, and there simply aren’t many impact names left on the board.
None of this means the Brewers won’t make the playoffs in 2020. Projections are just that, and nothing is stopping Narváez, Keston Hiura, or even Urías from taking the next step from good to great (and Hiura is already borderline great). But if this is their last big move of the offseason, it feels incomplete to me. Milwaukee has been a great success story the past two years, riding a Yelich breakout and an aggressive front office to two playoff berths, but I don’t see the trend continuing in 2020, and the García signing seems to me to lessen the odds of another late free agent coup that puts them over the top.
Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.