In what has been the slowest MLB off-season in more-than-recent memory, the Brewers have been connected to as many impact players as any team. Whether it’s to free agents like Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn, Alex Cobb, Lorenzo Cain, and Neil Walker, or to trade candidates such as Chris Archer, J.T. Realmuto, and Josh Harrison, there is every indication that David Stearns is thoroughly searching for ways to improve the team.
Perhaps the most desired target among Brewer fans has been Archer, although I argued against the move a couple months ago (that’s how slow this off-season is moving; we’re discussing the same things that we were in November!). However, sentiment lately seems to be that Archer will not be dealt, and furthermore, there have been multiple reports that the Brewers’ pursuit of starting pitching is currently focused on the free agent market. I am convinced that there is a greater than 50% chance that the Brewers sign Jake Arietta, and I am terrified of how much they’ll pay him, but this is still preferable to dealing 3-4 top prospects for a pitcher.
On the subject of just about every impact player who has been mentioned as a Brewers trade target, I’ve been lukewarm at best. The exception to that is Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich. Yelich’s agent has said that his relationship with the Marlins is “irretrievably broken” after the team traded some of their best players. Given this, it sure looks like he’ll be dealt before the season begins.
While it may seem odd (the Brewers’ outfield is likely the strength of the team as currently constructed), I prefer Yelich to all those other targets. I have decided to compare him directly with Archer for a few reasons. First, I’ve already explored a trade for Archer this off-season, and 2, they are very similar in terms of overall value. Fangraphs had Archer for 4.6 WAR last season, and they had Yelich at 4.5. Still, for a variety of reasons, Yelich is the smarter target.
Archer is under contract for four more seasons at far below market value: $6.4 million in 2018, $7.6 million in 2019, $8.25 million in 2020, and $8.25 million in 2021. Yelich is also under club control for four more years at below market value, although for more money than Archer: $7 million in 2018, $9.75 million in 2019, $12.5 million in 2020, and $14 million in 2021.
Despite the same amount of control and a smaller contract, age tips the scales away from Archer. He will turn 30 this year, and his contract will take him through his age 33 season. That certainly isn’t old yet, but it’s well past the point where most pitchers begin to decline. Meanwhile, Yelich will be 26 all season and will be much less likely to decline before his contract is up at age 30. The four-year age difference makes him a much safer bet.
This one is straightforward: pitchers are much higher injury risks than outfielders. They are also much more likely to experience a performance dip, due to injury, loss of velocity, etc., especially as they enter their 30s. These two players probably have similar ceilings, but Yelich’s floor is much higher simply because he is much more likely to stay on the field than Archer.
Archer currently pitches in a pitchers’ park. Tropicana Field, which checked in at #24 in 2017 Park Factors, suppresses runs, and therefore helps pitchers. So does Marlins Park, which ranked 28th. Miller Park finished at #8, meaning it is an offensive park. Simply put, moving to Miller Park is likely to hurt Archer’s performance, while it is likely to help Yelich’s.
Team Depth (and replacing Lewis Brinson)
For this, I am assuming that a package for either Archer or Yelich would include the Brewers’ top prospect, Lewis Brinson. That obviously isn’t a guarantee, but it would be pretty surprising if the Brewers acquired either of these players without giving up Brinson.
So, let’s say that Brinson goes to Tampa along with others for Archer. The Brewers’ outfield will have gone from an area of depth to one that is fairly thin. Suddenly, they’d be relying likely on a center field platoon of Brett Phillips and Keon Broxton, with Ryan Braun and Domingo Santana in the corners, and their fifth outfielder unclear at this point–Hernan Perez? You know the Brewers will need to spell Braun often; he is coming off a season of 105 games played and has exceed 135 once in the last five seasons. The outfield is much better equipped to handle a full season if Phillips is the fourth outfielder, backing up all three positions and spelling Braun regularly against righties, than it is with Phillips as the starting center fielder. This means the Brewers would need to commit more salary and/or prospects to another outfielder, or lose significant depth.
Meanwhile, say Brinson goes to Miami along with others for Yelich. The Brewers haven’t lost any outfield depth in this scenario. Phillips can remain a strong fourth outfielder/defensive replacement and still rack up a solid number of plate appearances simply due to Braun’s reduced workload. It also gives the Brewers other options. Should they choose to move Yelich to right field (he’s not as strong defensively in center as Brinson and possibly Phillips and Broxton), it would free up Santana to be traded. My personal preference would be to put Yelich in center and keep Santana, but the flexibility is there if a team wanted Santana.
This comes down to what the Brewers would be willing to trade Brinson for. It makes all the sense in the world to deal Brinson for Yelich, as Yelich is already what you’re hoping Brinson can become! Brinson, as strong a prospect as he is, is far from a proven commodity at the major league level. There is still a wide variance in his career outcome that simply doesn’t exist with Yelich. Yelich should be able to walk into Miller Park with a 4.5 WAR minimum, and there’s a good chance he’d exceed 5. If you asked anyone with the Brewers if they’d be happy with Brinson topping out as a 5 WAR player, your answer would be yes (in 2017, that was a top 7 outfielder).
This is not referencing the players’ contracts, but rather, what the Brewers would have to give up to land each player. Because it can be so difficult to find, elite starting pitching tends to be more difficult to acquire than offensive players. I have little to go on here other than my gut feeling, which is why I list this reason last, but I strongly suspect the Rays would require more for Archer than the Marlins would for Yelich. Archer is a pitcher, makes less money, and has not publicly spoken out against his team–all things that can drive up his price more.
With all this said, I would still be completely fine if the Brewers made no significant move for the rest of this off-season. But if they are looking to make a splash, I much prefer a trade for Yelich than a trade for an older pitcher. For all the reasons listed above, Yelich is worth a significant prospect haul. I could even get on board if, after a Yelich deal, the Brewers *winces, turns away from keyboard* signed Arrieta, Lynn, or Cobb to a not-crazy deal.