The most recent World Series, of course, was won by the Astros, and the previous World Series, of course, was won by the Cubs. Those teams have had the most successful examples of recent rebuilds, and although things don’t always go that well, the ideal rebuild goes through three phases. First, you tear down, exchanging shorter-term players for longer-term players. Then, you develop, with more talent accumulation along the way. Finally, there’s the push, the re-investment in trying to win. That’s when the rebuild is basically over. That’s when a team has climbed back in the race.
I don’t know what marked the Astros’ transition to phase three. Perhaps it was trading for Evan Gattis. Perhaps it was trading for Scott Kazmir, or for Carlos Gomez. On the Cubs’ side, there was the signing of Jon Lester, and there was the acquisition of Dexter Fowler. When the Astros and Cubs decided they were ready to win, the change was unmistakable. And now, hoping to follow in their footsteps, we have the Brewers. The Brewers have entered phase three.
To their credit, the Brewers didn’t let the process bottom out. After finishing above .500 in 2014, they spent just two years out of the hunt. Last season, they were an overachieving surprise. And now they’ve pulled off a major one-two punch. Thursday afternoon, they traded for Christian Yelich. Only a short time later, they signed Lorenzo Cain. Yelich cost four prospects. Cain got five years. But there’s no missing the message: The Brewers are ready.
Clearly these moves have come at a price. Over those five years, Cain is getting an $80-million guarantee, with some additional no-trade language. And here’s how the trade looks:
- Christian Yelich
Eric Longenhagen evaluated the Brewers’ system at the start of December, and those players ranked first, third, sixth, and 21st on his list. This is a blockbuster, with the Marlins getting potentially four major-league players, and as with most trades of this type, you could reasonably prefer either side. Depending on your own evaluation of Yelich, you might figure the Brewers overpaid. You might also figure they’re taking a real gamble on Cain, given that he’s almost 32 years old. The Brewers aren’t a large-market ballclub; they have to be more careful with their money than the Dodgers. They can’t afford many expensive mistakes, not if they want to have any kind of margin of error.
But that’s one of the things about phase three. Once you accept a rebuild, it’s not that hard to sell. It’s not that hard to take fliers. Rebuilding can be painful, but everything’s supported by the prospect of hope. It’s all about the long-term, and with a long-term perspective, anyone and everyone could work out. When a team re-invests, and prepares to win, the stakes are suddenly higher, and they feel more real. Teams are faced with decisions about impact moves that might make some people uncomfortable. It’s easy to sit in the middle, but it’s challenging to get good. The Brewers have summoned the courage to go for it.
Earlier in the week, when rumors surfaced connecting the Brewers and Yelich, I wrote about how the Brewers were looking to add to the top of the roster. Not only were they interested in Yelich; they’d also been linked to Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta. Today we’ve seen them get Yelich and Cain, instead of Yelich and a pitcher, but the takeaway’s the same. Firstly, the Brewers have actually added to the top of the roster, instead of just thinking about it. And secondly, it might not be immediately obvious what the Brewers have done. These might be their two new best players.
As I did the other day, I opened up the 2018 Steamer projections, putting all the hitters and then all the pitchers over common denominators. Now, Steamer is pretty down on the Brewers, and I think they’re better than Steamer supposes, but still, before today, the best-projected Brewers player was Jimmy Nelson, ranked 156th in the majors. Nelson happens to be coming off major shoulder surgery, and how good he’ll be when he comes back is an open question. By the same projections, Cain ranks 76th. And, by the same projections, Yelich ranks 40th. The Brewers didn’t just add two players. They might’ve added the two best players on the team.
That’s not an easy thing to do, and it’s certainly not easy to do in the same afternoon. Me, I like Domingo Santana more than Steamer does, but that doesn’t change very much. I don’t think Santana’s as good as Yelich. I don’t think he’s as good as Cain. Over the last three years, out of all major-league outfielders, Cain has ranked fourth in total WAR, and Yelich has ranked 11th. The Brewers are now substantially improved, and with a surplus of outfielders under control, the team is poised to make further moves, most likely swapping outfield depth for pitching.
It’s important to understand this isn’t just a one- or two-year sequence of adds. Cain, again, is now under contract for five years, and although players surely decline in their 30s, Cain just played a full season, posting a 115 wRC+ as a good defensive center fielder. You’d think he has a few good seasons left. And Yelich is 26, controlled for five years, and he appears to be so valuable he might be worth a Ronald Acuna. While Yelich doesn’t have that classic superstar profile, and while he’s mostly played under the radar, there’s not a thing that Yelich does poorly, and we’ve written on several occasions about the remaining offensive upside. Yelich hits a lot of ground balls, but he also generates strong exit velocities. It’s easy to dream on what Yelich could be if he lifted the ball a little more. I’d expect that the Brewers have already had that conversation.
And forget, even, for a moment, about what Yelich could be, in theory. You could also consider what he’s already been. Yelich has spent his career calling home a ballpark that’s been rough on left-handed hitters. Over more than 1,300 plate appearances in Miami, Yelich has put up a 113 wRC+. Over more than 1,400 plate appearances away from Miami, Yelich has put up a 128 wRC+. Keep in mind that players tend to be better at home than on the road. Since 2013, when Yelich debuted, 336 hitters have batted at least 500 times on the road. Yelich ranks 21st in wRC+, by names like Jose Altuve, Buster Posey, and Carlos Santana. Yelich has already been a quality hitter, and the environment in Milwaukee is far more favorable, even if they don’t try to change his swing or approach at all. Yelich’s power has been partially masked.
Yelich should be good for a long time. Cain should be good for a while. The rest of the Brewers could and should develop around them. Only a few seasons ago, the Brewers had payrolls north of $100 million, before the figure plummeted to the low-60s. It’s clear the club can support a nine-figure budget, and with so many young players graduating from the system, projected costs should be fairly low. That’s what makes Cain affordable, and Yelich as well. The whole point of cost efficiency is to make it possible to make a splash, when a splash can make a difference. Cain can be that difference-maker, and the Brewers can fit in his $16-million salary.
There’s more to be done. We know there’s more to be done, because in Yelich, Cain, Santana, Ryan Braun, Keon Broxton, and Brett Phillips, the Brewers have too many players in the same spots. Something has to give, and it only makes sense the Brewers would flip an outfielder or two for help somewhere else. At that point, the team would get only stronger, depending on the magnitude of the transaction. Even when we get to spring training, and rosters are mostly settled, I imagine the Brewers will still look worse than the Cubs. They might still look worse than the Cardinals. They could project for third place in a tough division. Those other clubs are strong, as well, and the Brewers’ best starter is a question mark. I don’t know if the 2018 Brewers will have what it takes.
But today isn’t only about the 2018 Brewers. It’s about the 2018 Brewers, and the 2019 Brewers, and the 2020 Brewers and so on. This is about the Brewers moving from one phase to the next, announcing to the rest of the league they’re ready to matter again. There’s some chance they could fall flat on their faces. It’s impossible for anyone to protect against that possibility, and the Brewers might be on the verge of disappointing. But, ultimately, this is the point of a rebuild. A rebuild only works if you try to make the most of it. Give it to David Stearns and Mark Attanasio — they’re trying. There’s a new young team out there that’s trying to win.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.