For a while, it looked like the biggest news of the Milwaukee Brewers’ offseason would be a change in sponsorship for the in-game sausage race.
General manager David Stearns shoved that development to the back-burner Thursday night, acquiring outfielder Christian Yelich in a trade with the Miami Marlins and signing free agent outfielder Lorenzo Cain.
In Yelich, Milwaukee is getting a .290 career hitter who batted .282 with 18 home runs and 81 RBIs in 156 games last season. He led all MLB center fielders with a .997 fielding percentage and committed just one error all season, his first full campaign in center.
“I think we view him as one of the bright young players in baseball right now, both offensively and defensively,” Stearns said. “(He’s) a player who can contribute to a championship-caliber team … we think he’s proven that over his young career, we expect him to do so (in Milwaukee).
“We’re getting a player who is just now in the prime of his career, and we’re getting a player who can be a Milwaukee Brewer for the next five years.”
Yelich, 26, was the subject of trade rumors for much of the offseason as the Marlins were dismantled under a new ownership group led by former Yankees star Derek Jeter.
Once Giancarlo Stanton, Dee Gordon and Marcell Ozuna were traded away, Yelich reportedly sought an exit from South Florida and now gets a chance to start fresh with a team looking to build on a breakthrough season in 2017.
“Honestly, it was getting exhausting, having to deal with it really since the end of the season and almost all the way up to spring training,” Yelich said. “For me, its more a relief that its over and you can just get back to focusing on playing baseball and doing what you love to do. I’m excited for the new opportunity and glad all that’s stuff is behind me.”
Not long after the Brewers announced the trade, Milwaukee also reached a reported five-year, $80 million deal with Cain, the Brewers’ 17th-round pick in the 2014 draft and later, the organization’s top prospect. He provided a glimpse of his ability by hitting .306 in 43 games late in 2010 but was dealt to Kansas City that winter in the deal that brought ace Zack Greinke to Milwaukee.
Cain, 31, hit .289 with 56 home runs and 308 RBIs during his seven seasons in Kansas City, earning a spot on the AL All-Star team and finishing third in MVP voting in 2015 as the Royals won the World Series.
Adding players the caliber of Yelich and Cain isn’t cheap — both financially as well as in terms of young talent.
To obtain Yelich, Stearns had to part with four high-level prospects, including outfielder and No. 1 overall prospect Lewis Brinson.
Stearns also sent outfielder Monte Harrison, infielder Isan Diaz and right-handed pitcher Jordan Yamamoto.
“It’s an honor that a team believes in you that much to give up some of their better prospects,” Yelich said.
Yelich will earn $7 million this season, the fourth in a seven-year deal signed in March 2015 that will pay him $43.25 million through the 2021 season.
Adding Cain will boost the payroll, too, but the Brewers have plenty of space.
Going into the offseason, Ryan Braun and Eric Thames represented Milwaukee’s only long-term obligations, with Braun — signed through 2020 — due $20 million in 2018 and Thames slated to draw $5 million this season and $6 million in 2019.
Stearns signed right-hander Jhoulys Chacin to a two-year deal and after agreeing to terms with all of Milwaukee’s arbitration-eligible players, the Brewers have an expected Opening Day payroll of $68 million not including their pre-arbitration players or any more signings.
The deals also suggest there’s a least one more coming. As it stands, the Brewers currently have six starting-caliber outfielders in Yelich, Cain, Braun, Domingo Santana, Keon Broxton and Brett Phillips.
Santana, the subject of trade rumors, is likely the odd man out. The 24-year-old hit .278 with 30 home runs and 73 RBIs last season and is under team control through the 2022 season, making him an ideal trade candidate — especially as Stearns continues to find ways to bolster a starting rotation that will be without right-hander Jimmy Nelson for much of next season.