Brewers' Christian Yelich soaring to new heights in Milwaukee
When it became clear the Miami Marlins were arranging a full organizational teardown last winter under new ownership, Milwaukee Brewers' general manager David Stearns dove headfirst into the Christian Yelich trade market. Stearns shipped top prospect Lewis Brinson to Miami, as well as minor leaguers Monte Harrison, Isan Diaz and Jordan Yamamoto, in return for the Marlins' young outfielder.
At the time, Yelich was yet to make an All-Star team through his first five campaigns, but his age, consistency, durability and contract status (he is signed through 2021 with a club option for 2022) made him an increasingly attractive trade chip.
From 2014 to '17, only five players in baseball played over 500 games and posted an OPS+ north of 120 before turning 26 years old: Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Mookie Betts and Yelich. Those first four names are absolutely a "who's who" among the game's greatest, and Yelich is sandwiched right among them. Players like that aren't available very often, especially for the small-market Brewers; it only made sense for Stearns to grab the undervalued superstar.
Selling off elite prospects (as well as signing Lorenzo Cain) signaled the Brewers were all in on this 2018 core, which was both an exciting and risky proposition for a group that still had plenty of holes. But Yelich's emergence has papered over any question marks, while the struggles of the prospects the Brewers sent away have made the trade even easier to swallow.
The 26-year-old Yelich has already posted career highs across the board, with a remarkable .318/.385/.570 slash line, 67 extra-base hits and 19 stolen bases. He has been a sturdy defender over all three outfield positions, and he has teamed up with Cain to keep the lineup afloat amidst the streakiness of the rest of Milwaukee's offense.
Meanwhile in Miami, Brinson, the gem of the trade, has been the worst hitter among NL players with at least 350 plate appearances this season, Diaz has hit .204 in 36 Triple-A games and Harrison's performance has slipped in Double-A. Yamamoto does have a 1.83 ERA in 13 games across three levels this season and the other three position players are still young, but this deal already looks like a heist for the Brewers.
Yelich's 2018 success isn't really the byproduct of a new approach either. While many players have seen their home run totals spike as they join the launch angle revolution, the Brewers' lefty has bashed 31 homers by simply hitting the ball harder and eschewing any launch angle adjustments. He isn't lifting the ball in the air more often – in fact, his fly ball rate is down a few percentage points from last season and his launch angle ranks 300th out of 311 qualified players – but his hard contact rate has jumped significantly to 47.4 percent (fourth in NL) and his 24.8 percent line drive rate marks a career-high. Combine his ability to regularly barrel up opposing pitchers with the switch from the cavernous Marlins Park to the cozy Miller Park, as well as bit of fortune on balls in play, and you'll find the best hitter in the National League.
To top if off, Yelich has come on strong when the Brewers have needed it most. He has blasted eight home runs, scratched off 26 RBI and notched two cycles en route to a Babe Ruthian 1.270 OPS over the last 19 games, elevating Milwaukee to a 13-6 record in the process. The Brewers now sit just two-and-a-half games behind the Chicago Cubs for both the division lead and the best record in the NL. If Yelich can stay hot against baseball's sixth-easiest remaining schedule, the Brewers could track down Chicago even without any head-to-contests left on the slate.
Last week, I wrote that Cain should be one of the frontrunners in the NL's messy MVP race. And while Cain's performance has not dipped over the past few contests, Yelich has taken his game to the next level – so much so that he may now be the favorite for the award. The NL MVP crown could very well come down to Chicago's Javy Baez versus "insert Milwaukee player here." If that's the case, Yelich's overwhelming offensive firepower will likely outweigh Cain's incredible all-around game, especially considering Yelich's torrid finish and flashier narrative.
Still, both members of Milwaukee's elite outfield duo will undoubtedly be two of the top vote-getters by season's end, and they could actually join a rare club in NL history. Since 1960, only six pairs of National League teammates have ever finished first and second in MVP votes in the same season, and none since San Francisco's Jeff Kent and Barry Bonds last accomplished the feat in 2000. Yelich (6.0) and Cain (5.4) rank first and second in wins above replacement in the NL right now, according to Fangraphs, and could earn extra points in the mind of voters if the Brewers win the division.
Yelich, Cain and the Brewers have much bigger things on their mind than counting MVP votes, but for a franchise that is light on notoriety despite its lengthy history, putting a stamp on the NL record books during one of the organization's best campaigns would still be a delight.
In the meantime, Yelich will just have to keep proving the Marlins' mistake, one line drive at a time.
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