Milwaukee Brewers acquired OF-L Christian Yelich from Miami Marlins in exchange for OF-R Lewis Brinson, OF-R Monte Harrison, IF-L Isan Diaz, and RHP Jordan Yamamoto. [1/25]; Signed OF-R Lorenzo Cain to a five-year, $80 million contract. [1/25]
When the Brewers consummated their deal for Yelich, it wasn’t a shock. There had been rumors bouncing around linking Milwaukee and Miami, and the Marlins’ final remaining All-Star outfielder was clearly on his way to a more northern destination. But when Cain’s deal was leaked about 90 minutes later, that was a shocker. After all, who would’ve guessed that the Brewers would a) follow up one of the biggest moves of the offseason with another of the biggest moves of the offseason, b) acquire another impact outfielder when they already had three or four, and c) break the seal on inking top-tier free agents during this painfully slow winter? By the end of the day, the team had snagged two of the eight best center fielders in baseball, and made a convincing argument that they’ve had the best and most aggressive offseason of any team. (The only other contenders at this juncture are the Yankees, Angels, and Giants.)
We can start by talking about Statcast superhero Christian Yelich, whose exit velocity is epic but also severely mitigated by his incredible ability to put the ball in the dirt. While he’s no longer tops in baseball at beating the rawhide into the ground, he still puts a surprising amount of balls low for someone with his masterful plate coverage and discipline. He’s what you call a “professional hitter”—scary consistent when it comes to batting average, walk rate, and on-base percentage. While he hasn’t yet flashed top-end power despite his exceptional physical skills, the potential for 30 dingers is there if he can find a way to put up more fly balls. In addition to being a world-class table-setter with the potential for more, Yelich also is a heady baserunner and a terrific defender in left field, if not an elite center fielder. He’s the type of player any front office would want inked to his long-term, low-cost contract … unless you’re the Marlins, I guess.
Then there’s Cain, the prodigal son and hyper-athletic center fielder with World Series hardware. Cain’s glove and physical skills have been lighting up Kansas City for years, and when Cain has a season where he hits for a little more power than usual, like in 2015 or 2017, look out. Until now, he’s been likely to put up high batting averages and play excellent defense with regularity, but when he hits for more power, it seems to unlock his ability to command the strike zone and transforms him from an above-average center fielder to an All-Star. His Achilles’ heel is his ability to stay on the field, and going into his age-32 season that’s unlikely to change much, but he’s shown no signs of slowing down up to this point, and projects to be something like a three-win outfielder with upside for the next few campaigns. In essence, anything Yelich can do, Cain can do, but with better defense, more volatility, and from the right side of the plate.
Cain and Yelich are kind of mirror images of each other. In each, you have well-rounded overall players who can fit in center field or a corner. Each is an above-average hitter–not just for their position, but for any position–but one hits from the right side and the other from the left. They both have enough OBP and speed to hit at the top of the lineup, and enough overall offensive verve and hit tool to hit second or third. (I’d flip-flop them in the leadoff spot depending on the starting pitcher’s handedness, if the pair would be amenable to it.) Cain is older, but his peaks have been higher than Yelich’s and he grades out as a far better defender per BP’s Fielding Runs Above Average metric. Yelich is younger, cheaper, and perhaps more consistent, with still a touch of upside if he could ever figure out how to elevate the ball. Each has a claim to be the best player on the 2018 Brewers, the 2019 Brewers, and probably the 2020 Brewers.
In the span of just a few hours, the Brewers almost completely revamped an outfield that was … well, it was fine before. Now it’s not fine, it’s phenomenal. Domingo Santana is the best fourth outfielder in baseball, for however long that lasts. Brett Phillips and Keon Broxton are the best fifth and sixth outfielders in baseball, for however long that lasts. You can make the argument that having such an obvious surplus in one area of the team will cause potential trade partners to drive down the value of any return on Santana or Phillips or Broxton (or Ryan Braun) because the Brewers must trade one or more of their outfielders. But I’d certainly rather have a surplus of above-average talent in one area of my team than having a few extra prospects and money in my pocket.
What’s next? It seems likely that the Brewers will try to address holes in the rotation, at second base, and potentially behind the plate. I posited on the most recent DFA Podcast that a reunion with former Brewers Neil Walker and Jonathan Lucroy might seal up a pair of holes on the position side, while my colleague R.J. Anderson continued to push for another former Brewer–Rays right-hander Jake Odorizzi–as a potential rotation cog. But unless they do something to address the top end of their rotation, the Brewers still resemble a plucky Wild Card contender more than a “real” threat to their division-mates in the Windy City. Chase Anderson and Jhoulys Chacin can only take you so far. But this team’s willingness to take advantage of the down free agent market and the Marlins’ fire sale makes them one of the big winners of the offseason so far. —Bryan Grosnick
Brinson’s profile is carried by his speed and glove, both potential plus-plus weapons. And really, you can project a full five-tool center fielder here—something in the range of .270 and 20-plus home runs if it all comes together. And even if the bat doesn’t quite reach those lofty heights, there is Mike Cameron potential here due to the pop and glove. Brinson struggled some on the road in the PCL and he’s generally seen friendly run environments that mask the hit tool concerns in the profile. There’s big swing-and-miss here. It’s a long swing and he will expand the zone, a sub-optimal combination when facing major-league arms, and he looked wildly overmatched in his Brewers cameo in 2017. Brinson has shown the ability to make adjustments at each level, but he’s also needed adjustment time. Brinson is a top-25 prospect, but with higher risk than many in that range.
Harrison is one of many raw prep outfield prospects with plus athleticism that teams hope will develop playable baseball skills. He is and has been doing that, finding success in 2017 as a top-of-the-lineup force in center field. Harrison is an 80 athlete with 65 speed (home-to-first time: 4.18 seconds) and a 60 arm, with plus strength and bat speed to accurately earn the “five-tool talent” moniker. Most impressively, by late season Harrison was reining in his aggression at the plate, and his patience put him in favorable hitting counts where he could barrel pitches, finding his pull power. Harrison has made great strides to turn his raw athleticism into above-average baseball skills, but he still has work to do. You still see how raw he is: it can be an adventure in the field with near over-runs and below-average reads. At present his closing speed is enough to compensate, but his aggression in the field and on the basepaths is something to monitor. By year’s end, his swing-and-miss was improving, and he wasn’t trying to do too much. The strikeout rate and hit tool are the big risks still.
Diaz is still 21 years old with a ton of ability with the stick. The bat speed is plus and his batting practice is one of the best you’ll see from a minor-league middle infielder. Diaz has the potential to develop into an above-average contact and power hitter at his ceiling, making him one of the more intriguing middle infield prospects in baseball. An average in the .270s with 20-homer pop is not out of the question. Unfortunately, while all the tools are there to be an above-average hitter, Diaz has yet to show the ability to translate his raw talent to games. He struck out way too much this past season, as he frequently expands the zone, with the swing getting far too unhinged. Diaz still showed a lot of immaturity in High-A, letting his emotions get the better of him, which certainly affects his composure at the plate. In addition, Diaz is unlikely to stick at shortstop because he lacks the necessary range, which puts more pressure on his hit tool developing as he shifts to second base. —Jeffrey Paternostro and BP Prospect Staff