Milwaukee Brewers general manager David Stearns insisted it was mere coincidence that long-running negotiations to acquire outfielders Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain crossed the finish line almost simultaneously.
But what delicious coincidence it was for Brewers fans who won’t mind one bit if the organization skips a step or two in its rebuilding process and immediately starts buying property on Boardwalk.
This just might turn out to be the quickest rebuilding program in major-league history. After stripping down their roster to start over nearly from scratch, the Brewers scrambled to win 73 games in 2016. Then, unexpectedly, after making a few key acquisitions, the team shot forward in a big way last season with 86 victories, missing the postseason by a mere game.
Just like that, the expectation level increased, from both within and outside the organization. And the Brewers did not run and hide.
“We had a very competitive team last year,” Stearns said Friday afternoon at a media session to introduce – actually, reintroduce – Cain after signing the multi-talented center fielder to a five-year, $80 million deal
“We had a team that played well. We had a lot of young players take steps forward. We expect expectations and we’re going to embrace the expectations.”
Seeing opportunities to goose this process forward in a big way, Stearns and Co. spent much of this otherwise quiet off-season keeping in touch with Cain’s agent, Damon Lapa, while also continuing discussions with the Miami Marlins about a possible deal for Yelich. Then, within an hour of each other, both deals were consummated Thursday.
“It’s exciting for the organization,” the poker-faced Stearns said. “Obviously, a deal like (Cain’s) or the Yelich deal, those aren’t deals that come together overnight. Those are long processes that take frankly months to come together.
When news of the Brewers’ 1-2 punch started to spread, some folks figured the rebuild was done and it was “go for it” time. The Brewers parted with three of their best prospects, including No. 1 Lewis Brinson, and yet a fourth to get Yelich, so it did have a future-is-now feel to it.
That’s not how Stearns views it, however. He takes each opportunity on its own merit. The Marlins were conducting a fire sale in which everything had to go, and Yelich was the last commodity in high demand. With five years of control of Yelich, a budding star in his prime, Stearns knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime grab, so he went for it.
As for committing five years and $80 million to Cain, who will be 32 in April, Stearns saw it as a chance that might not come around for a while as well. Yelich and Cain are two players who excel on both offense and defense, and check off most if not all of the boxes of the modern-day analytics under which players now are evaluated.
“It’s a confluence of a number of different factors,” Stearns said. “We knew we would have an off-season like this at some point. I couldn’t have told you whether it would be this off-season, next off-season or the off-season after, but we knew at some point we would make significant outside acquisitions to supplement our team.
“A number of factors contributed to this and when these opportunities arose, to add Christian and Lorenzo and bring these types of talents into the organization, we decided that now is the time. Both players are here, obviously, for a long time and allow us to, we believe, be a strong team for multiple years.”
Another factor in the equation was the difficulty Ryan Braun had staying on the field in 2017. Stearns took a run at trading Braun to the Dodgers late in the 2016 season but when that deal fell apart, it became evident Braun – who has full veto rights with three years remaining on his contract – would finish his career with the Brewers.
Limited to 104 games last season by a variety of ailments, most prominently a calf strain, Braun produced a .823 OPS, 82 points below his career norm. He was so banged up down the stretch that he was of little help when the Brewers needed him most, battling until the penultimate day of the season before being eliminated.
So, the Brewers will see how Braun looks at first base to determine if he can play some games there and open left field for Yelich or one of the other outfielders. Cain will be the primary centerfielder but the Brewers still have holdovers Domingo Santana and Keon Broxton as well as prospect Brett Phillips, though one or more could be traded to acquire a needed pitcher or second baseman.
“I think that’s something we’re open to exploring in spring training and seeing where it leads,” said Stearns, who already had broached the subject of playing first base with Braun. “Obviously, it’s challenging to change positions at the major-league level, but it’s something that Ryan is open to exploring, so we’ll see where it leads.
“Ryan’s interests are to help this team however he can. He wants to win. He knows we just acquired two very talented players who are going to help us win. Ryan wants to put the Brewers in the best position to succeed.”
Manager Craig Counsell made it clear that the plan is to see if Braun can play somefirst base, not be the regular there. So don’t go thinking that Eric Thames is on the trade block. Having too many good players is always a good problem, not a bad one.
Asked about the logjam of outfielders, Stearns smiled and said, “I think I’d call it depth. We’ve talked a lot about depth over the past couple years and how important that is. I think we’ve seen it throughout the league, really good teams have a lot of depth throughout their rosters, and we are getting to that point, where we’re accumulating as much talent as possible throughout the roster.
“Clearly, we have options. We have a number of established players, a number of established outfielders, and that is something that we’re going to continue to work through. I think we’re confident that by the time we get to spring training and opening day, we’ll have it sorted out. There will be plenty of ABs and plate appearances to go around.”
Perhaps it will be sorted out beforehand with more moves to come. Once Stearns gets on a roll, we have seen that he often keeps it going. And, right now, he is on a roll.
By Tom Haudricourt