MLB | The Imperfect Union of Lorenzo Cain and the Milwaukee Brewers

The Milwaukee Brewers made waves Thursday signing Lorenzo Cain but not everything fits perfectly

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The ‘Twitterverse’ caught fire Thursday night as the Milwaukee Brewers announced the acquisitions of superstar outfielders, Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain. The news was a welcome relief to many as baseball fans continue to suffer through the slowest off-season in recent memory. You could dedicate an entire post to the Yelich trade but I’m not going to do that, rather, I’m happy to simply say that I think it was a great deal for both teams involved. Instead, I have gathered you all here today to observe the imperfect union between Lorenzo Cain and the Milwaukee Brewers.

There are some obvious first impressions from this deal. Firstly, Cain is an excellent player – one of the top free agents available in this class. Secondly, the Milwaukee Brewers are a good team awakening from a short rebuild who could use some seasoned MLB talent to supplement a young and likely volatile, core of players. On this level, Cain seems like a perfect fit and even more so when you consider that the $16M in Average Annual Value guaranteed to Cain over the next 5 years is almost exactly half of the ~$31M of projected value calculated in our Free Agent Breakdown Series. In a vacuum you might argue that the Brewers just bought themselves their favorite bottle of Maccallan from the sale rack of their local discount liquor store. In a vacuum, this is probably true. Cain isn’t the best player in baseball but he’s at least in the game’s upper tier and 5yrs/$80M is a relative discount for that kind of player. However, nothing ever happens in a vacuum – context is important.

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So about that context. The Milwaukee Brewers of course just won 86 games in 2017, pulling off a remarkably short rebuilding phase. They did so largely with the benefit of breakouts from incumbent players such as Domingo Santana, Jimmy Nelson, Brent Suter and so on. Just eyeballing the Brewers’ roster, the outfield looked like an area of strength. In fact, with multiple years of control over Ryan Braun, Domingo Santana, Keon Broxton, Lewis Brinson and Brett Phillips – all of whom are ready to contribute to an MLB roster in 2018 – the Brewers’ outfield looked like a logjam.  The trade for Christian Yelich helped to consolidate some of these assets as Brinson and fellow top outfield prospect, Monte Harrison, were shipped to Miami along with infielder Isan Diaz and RHP Jordan Yamamoto. With Yelich now in the fold, the Brewers were set to run an outfield unit of Braun, Yelich and Santana who combined to produce ~10 WAR in 2017. This just hours before agreeing to terms with Lorenzo Cain.

By now I’ve spent a lot of time setting this up, so let’s get straight to the problem. Every acquisition comes with consequences and with the acquisition of Cain, that consequence would appear to be the loss of Domingo Santana. The table below compares the 2017 season just posted by Domingo Santana and the Steamer Projection for Cain’s 2018 season:

HR SB AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ WAR
Cain (18) 16 16 0.284 0.345 0.442 0.337 104 2.9
Santana(17) 30 15 0.278 0.371 0.505 0.372 126 3.3

Now, one might take issue comparing a projection to actual performance across players and in most cases it’s an unfair fight. However, Santana just broke out in a big way as a 25 year old who had never posted more than .5 WAR in a season. Projection systems tend to be somewhat slow to buy into these players however, so I don’t feel this is too unreasonable. In any case my point here isn’t that Santana is a better player, in fact I don’t even really care about the decimals in those WAR columns. Cain is probably a little better than a 2.9 WAR player right now and Santana is probably due to regress some from his 3.3 WAR 2017 season. That’s fine but what’s important here is that these are two similar players in terms of their overall production. The Brewers are set to pay Cain $16M per year over the next 5 years to replace Santana who will earn just $500,000 in 2018 before taking his 3 turns through arbitration from 2019-2021. In essence, the Brewers potentially paid $80M dollars to replace Domingo Santana with an older – even if more proven – Domingo Santana.

Now of course the Brewers would likely prefer to move Ryan Braun out of the picture. However, the aging veteran is due $56M over the next 4 years and can block trades to all teams not named the Dodgers which makes a Braun trade almost impossible. Further, the Brewers’ will still need to find themselves an ace and dangling Domingo Santana might be the best way to do so. For what it’s worth it appears they’ve already approached the Tampa Bay Rays about Chris Archer on such a deal:

The Brewers’ just signed All-Star Lorenzo Cain to a well below value deal so no matter what it’s unlikely that this deal will hurt them in any meaningful way. After all, Cain would have to average a measly 1.6 WAR over the life of the deal to pay off his contract. But for a mid-market team who’s record payroll is $103M back in 2013, adding Cain’s $16M AAV to a payroll already projected at some $77M, doesn’t leave a lot of breathing room, especially given they still need to add at least one starter and possibly a second baseman as well as some depth around the edges. And that’s before you consider arbitration raises for many of the players over the next few seasons.

The Cain deal isn’t terrible for the Brewers’ – in fact, in many ways, it’s a good one. However, a team with limited payroll flexibility has to allocate those dollars as efficiently as possible and paying Cain an extra $12M or so per year to replace Domingo Santana doesn’t strike me as the most efficient strategy.

There is one thing to be said for the Brewers’ however, in an off-season that so many teams have sat out, the Brew Crew is going for it. The roster is young and talented and ready to win now and with the acquisitions of Cain and Yelich, they’re poised to do so.

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