Christian Yelich has emerged as one of the game’s elite players while playing under a very club-friendly contract. Now it appears as though the Brewers’ right fielder will be paid like the superstar he’s become, even while staying put in the game’s smallest market. According to The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal (with a substantial assist from the New York Post’s Joel Sherman), the Brewers and Yelich are nearing agreement on an extension that will cover nine years and be worth around $215 million, with a mutual option for a 10th year.
Yelich won NL MVP honors in 2018 while leading the Brewers to a division title and helping them come within one win of a trip to the World Series. He hit .326/.402/.598 with 36 homers and league bests in batting average, slugging percentage, wRC+ (166) and WAR (7.6), then followed that up with another MVP-caliber campaign that featured even better numbers, including a slash-stat Triple Crown (.329/.429/.671), 44 homers, and again league bests in both wRC+ (174) and WAR (7.8). Alas, on September 10, he fracture his right kneecap by fouling a pitch off of it (OUCH), ending his season and, as it turned out, his MVP hopes; he finished second to Cody Bellinger, over whom he had a slight statistical advantage at the time of the injury.
Including his 2016 and ’17 seasons, which were worth a combined 10.0 WAR, Yelich has been the majors’ third-most valuable player over the past four years. You can probably guess who’s first and second:
|2||Mookie Betts||Red Sox||2762||139||30.7|
Trout (12 years, $426.5 million), Arenado (eight years, $260 million), and Rendon (seven years, $245 million) have all cashed in via monster contracts, and all signs point to Betts doing so this coming winter, with Lindor and Bryant two seasons away from their big paydays. Yelich, despite his standing among that group, will be paid more money than most of us will ever see, but he’s going to fall significantly short of that upper tier due to timing and his own choices, both in the past and present. The 28-year-old slugger is currently working under a seven-year $49.57 million contract that he signed in March 2015, just before he began his third major league season with the Marlins. That contract bought out his first two years of free agency at a considerable discount; instead of signing a deal this past winter that might have surpassed $300 million, he’s receiving a modest $12.5 million this year, with $14 million in 2021. Those two years will be rolled into the new contract, added to seven additional years (2022-28) worth about $188.5 million (just shy of $27 million annually), with the mutual option for an undisclosed amount covering the 2029 season, his age-37 campaign. An unspecified amount of the money is deferred.
Via Dan Szymborski, here’s Yelich’s ZiPS forecast for the guaranteed period of the deal:
Per Szymborski, at $7.5 million per win plus 5% inflation — a set of assumptions that doesn’t exactly jibe with what we’ve seen over the past three winters but probably works better over a longer period of time — that contract would be worth $315 million over nine years if Yelich were a free agent right now, a honking $100 million more than he’ll actually make. Even so, much of his performance value is up front, during the two low-cost years that are being carried over. ZiPS figures that the seven years starting in 2022 are worth $225 million, which is still $36.5 million more than he’s being paid for that period.
Obviously, that’s a considerable difference, and from one vantage, it looks as though Yelich got hosed, or at the very least granted the Brewers a steep hometown discount — which would be his prerogative, as he’s clearly happy in Cream City. As he told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Todd Rosiak last September, “I really enjoy this city and it’s somewhere that I’m very passionate about. It’s somewhere that, if I were to finish my career here, I would not mind that at all.”
Fair enough, but before you slap your forehead at his leaving so much money on the table, consider that if Yelich had played through his current deal, including the $15 million club option the Brewers held on his services in 2022, he would have reached free agency as he entered his age-31 season. The free agent market simply hasn’t been as hospitable to such geezers of late; here are the top contracts signed by free agent position players entering their age-31 seasons or later over the past five winters:
|Yasmani Grandal||White Sox||2020||31||4||73.0|
Just four of those deals were worth $80 million or more, and just one topped $100 million; meanwhile, just four (those of Céspedes, Donaldson, Encarnación, and Santana) had an average annual value of at least $20 million, with only one topping $25 million. It’s true that Donaldson might be the only player from the above group in Yelich’s class, as he also won an MVP award and has three seasons of at least 7.0 WAR under his belt to Yelich’s two, but he didn’t hit free agency until he was older and had been through the injury wringer, losing about a full season during the 2017-18 span. It’s the younger players hitting free agency — or approaching it and choosing to forgo it via massive extensions — who are getting paid the biggest bucks, and because of his previous deal, this might the best Yelich can do without missing that boat entirely.
Yelich’s situation isn’t unlike those of Altuve or Chris Sale, whose club-friendly contracts from early in their careers gave them security but prevented them from free agent paydays on the $200 million tier. Altuve signed a four-year, $12.5 million deal with two additional club options in mid-2013, his second full season, then signed a seven-year, $163.5 million extension in March 2018, one that converted those meager club options ($6 million and $6.5 million for 2018 and ’19) into guaranteed years sweetened by a $21 million signing bonus. Sale signed a five-year, $32.5 million deal with a pair of club options in 2013, the middle of his third full season. He played it all the way through while making $28.5 million in 2018-19, and is now working under a five-year, $145 million extension he signed last March.
From the Brewers’ side, this is an impressive investment that helps to offset a significant cutback in the current payroll, which per our RosterResource payroll pages is down $25 million from last year (from $134 million to $109 million). It’s made possible by the fact that the team has very little in the way of salary commitments beyond 2021. Ryan Braun‘s five-year, $105 million deal and its $15 million mutual option for 2021 will be off the books, leaving Cain’s $18 million salary for ’22 (the final one of his five-year deal), a $12 million club option (which can vest into a mutual option) on Avisaíl García, and a guaranteed $2.75 million (plus incentives) for Josh Lindblom the only deals in place besides the as-yet-unspecified balance of Freddy Peralta’s new five-year, $15.5 million extension.
Exactly whom the Brewers plan to surround Yelich with besides Keston Hiura and Luis Urias (both arbitration-eligible starting in 2023) remains to be seen, particularly with a farm system that ranked second-to-last in future value as of late last season, and last in the eyes of both Baseball America and The Athletic’s Keith Law this spring. Eric Longenhagen’s Brewers list is forthcoming, but Milwaukee only placed one prospect, Brice Turang, on our 2020 Top 100 (Turang checked in at 104). Yet the team has been reliably competitive in recent years while drawing well in terms of attendance (fifth in the NL last year at 2.9 million, sixth in the previous two seasons), and owner Mark Attanasio and president of baseball operations David Stearns have earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to building a roster, at least in the eyes of their biggest star. Can Milwaukee contend while one player occupies 15-20% of their payroll, which given a $27 million salary would mean $135 million to $180 million for a team that according to Cot’s Contacts set a record last year with a $122.5 million Opening Day payroll? We’re going to find out.
There’s certainly a compare-and-contrast exercise to be done between the Brewers and Yelich versus the Indians and Lindor, whose situation Craig Edwards examined last week. Like the Brewers, the Indians have a creative front office and a recent history of contending, but they play in a larger market, yet don’t draw as well, and wind up with a similar estimated revenue according to Forbes. Against that backdrop, the shortstop made the choice to go year-to-year through his arbitration eligibility, and between that and the arrival of his free agency following his age-27 season, he’s set up for a much bigger haul than Yelich is getting, one that will likely mean his departure.
Different teams, different players, different circumstances. Timing is everything when it comes to getting the biggest contracts, and for Yelich, the stars did not align in a way that made that possible. That he and the Brewers have found a middle ground that works for both sides makes for a feel-good story, and while it’s not a situation that fits every top-tier player, we can be happy that it works for him.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.