While the rest of the league was sitting by the hearth, quietly contemplating the balance of expenditure and analytics, David Stearns was in the kitchen, his fingers on the dial of the burner, waiting for the temperature to be just right to make a splash. By the time he was through, he had cooked up one of the best outfields in the NL and served it to the rest of the league on a silver platter.
While Stearns has quickly established himself as a master of the unconventional, he may have topped himself this time, adding rising superstar Christian Yelich and veteran former Brewer Lorenzo Cain to an outfield that already boasted some of the most high-potential young outfield talent in the game.
Rumors had been circulating since the start of the offseason that Stearns was in on Cain, but it left many scratching their heads given the team’s surplus of talent at the position. Brett Phillips was upgraded to an 80 arm after two of the hardest thrown — and accurate — balls from the outfield last season and had solid offensive numbers to back it up. Domingo Santana was coming off of a breakout season, producing 30 home runs, 85 RBI and 15 stolen bases with a .278/.371/.505 triple slash line on a league-minimum salary. Keon Broxton may have tallied a number of strikeouts that had him bouncing on and off the bench, but still produced a 20/20 season and nearly 50 RBI to boot while showcasing immense talent on both sides of the plate, streakiness notwithstanding. Then there was Lewis Brinson, one of the league’s top outfield prospects who was barely given a chance to get a foothold in the majors in 2017 after showing monster power and five-tool prowess in Triple-A. All of these players had significant control but lacked one major element: none of them had proven themselves for more than one full Major League season.
But Yelich? Well, Yelich fit the mold. At 26 years old, he has already spent four full seasons in the majors, collected a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger along the way, even ranking in the top-20 in MVP voting in 2016. He has the ability to play all fields — an exceptionally important aspect in the Stearns regime — and is a plus defender in both left and center. It should come as no surprise that Stearns’ tight-lipped strategy had this move coming out of left field, literally and figuratively.
More importantly, Yelich has come into his own in the last two years after a slow, serviceable start to his career. His 162 game average may not look gangbusters, but Yelich still sits at .290/.369/.439 with 93 R, 15 HR, 74 RBI and 18 stolen bases. In 2016 and 2017 combined, Yelich collected 178 runs, 39 home runs, 179 RBI and 25 stolen bases while maintaining his career slash line. He also distributes his offense evenly as evidenced by the last few years of spray charts, pulling 34% to left, dropping 36% to center and driving 30% to the opposite field, all with a 55% groundball rate that ranked fifth of all qualified hitters just last year. With any increase in launch angle, he could see a few more dropping outside the walls. Better yet, he’ll be heading to one of the more hitter-friendly parks in the majors that just so happens to play exceptionally well to left-handed power.
He may not fully join the ranks of his 2010 draft class brethren like Bryce Harper or Manny Machado but, considering his age, Yelich has more than enough time to improve. And the best part? He’s underpaid while just entering his prime. The Marlins bought out his arbitration years by signing him to an extremely team-friendly 7-year deal that has him now averaging just under $12M a year for the next five including a 2022 club option in his age-30 season, well under what he should be compensated for his current production, let alone what he’s yet to achieve.
While the jury may be a bit more out on the acquisition of Cain, who will cost significantly more especially at 31, Yelich looks to be one of the best value acquisitions this offseason, if not in the last few years and carries all the hallmarks of the prudent spending and detailed analysis Stearns’ front office are becoming known for. If nothing else, Yelich will be a featured bat in a lineup that already looks to be improving in both depth and potential, one that should have the team challenging prior notions of who will be the frontrunners in the NL Central.
Jonathan Powell is a co-founder and lead writer for Bronx to Bushville. Khurram Kalim contributed to this article.