The Brewers Rightly Bet $200M That Christian Yelich Won't Be Miguel Cabrera

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 5, 2020

Milwaukee Brewers' Christian Yelich hits a three-run home run during the third inning of a baseball game against the Chicago Cubs Friday, Sept. 6, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Morry Gash/Associated Press

There's no rush for the Milwaukee Brewers to sign Christian Yelich to a megadeal that would effectively make him a Brewer for life. Heck, they could wait another three years to even consider it.

Yet such a deal is reportedly in the works anyway. And as these things go, it's oddly sensible.

Though nothing is official yet, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported Tuesday that Yelich and the Brewers are nearing an agreement on a nine-year contract in the $215 million range.

Yelich, who was the National League MVP in 2018 and the MVP runner-up in 2019, was already signed to a team-friendly $49.6 million contract that ran through 2021 with an option for his age-30 season in 2022. 

Per Jon Heyman of MLB Network, his new deal will override the option year:

If true, Yelich's deal will run through his age-36 season in 2028. He stands to make roughly $23.9 million per year, which would slot him between Robinson Cano and Albert Pujols ($24 million) and Zack Wheeler ($23.6 million) in the average annual value rankings.

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"He definitely deserves it," teammate Lorenzo Cain said, per Adam McCalvy of MLB.com. "Definitely the best player on the team. He rakes, and he got a deserving contract, for sure."

According to Baseball Reference, the 28-year-old ranks third among all outfielders in wins above replacement dating back to 2014. He's been arguably the game's best player since the 2018 All-Star break, altogether tallying a .342/.436/.705 slash line with 69 home runs and 40 stolen bases in 195 games.

But while a player with these credentials is absolutely worth more than $23.8 million per year in a vacuum, Yelich was previously slated to hit the age of 30 before he hit the open market. To boot, his 2019 season was marred by bad back and eventually ended early courtesy of a fractured kneecap.

That pretty well sums up why accepting this deal makes sense for him. But for the Brewers, that same set of facts calls to mind the ultimate cautionary tale for long-term contract extensions: Miguel Cabrera.

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

Six years ago this month, the Detroit Tigers signed Cabrera to an eight-year extension worth $248 million. When combined with the $44 million he was already owed through 2015, it amounted to a then-record $292 million payout.

At the time, Cabrera was fresh off consecutive American League MVP awards and generally regarded as the best hitter in Major League Baseball. But he was still two seasons away from free agency at the time, and signs of his mortality were already in the spotlight.

Injuries rendered Cabrera basically half-functional in the closing months of the 2013 season, and he eventually needed core muscle surgery to repair the damage. By the time he signed on the dotted line, he was mere days from his 31st birthday.

These realities made Cabrera's contract ripe for skepticism as soon as it was signed, and time hasn't done it any favors. He maintained as an elite hitter through 2016, but he's since been limited to 304 total games and an un-Miggy-like .749 OPS. He's now pretty much a designated hitter who can't hit, albeit one who's owed $124 million through 2023.

Assuming their deal with Yelich is eventually completed, encapsulated within all this is the worst-case scenario for the Brewers. What they want is nine more years of Yelich's MVP self. What they might get is nine years of his post-prime self, complete with sagging production and compromised health.

There is, however, a difference between a worst-case scenario and a most likely scenario. And for the Brewers, there's plenty about the latter that's reassuring.

Aaron Gash/Associated Press

Unlike the Tigers with Cabrera in 2014, the Brewers haven't gone out of their way to pay Yelich more than his market value.

Had he been a free agent this winter, Yelich surely would have bested the seven-year, $245 million contract that fellow superstar Anthony Rendon signed with the Los Angeles Angels. As it is, the Brewers will be paying Yelich $30 million less than that despite also having him for two extra seasons.

Yelich is also three years younger now than Cabrera was then. And though the issues he had with his back in '19 cast some doubt on whether his body is going to hold up, it's somewhat comforting that they didn't keep him from playing at a high level. There's additional comfort to be found in how his knee injury was the result of a foul ball and not wear and tear.

This is not to suggest that Yelich's skills won't diminish with age. But he at least has more tools—he can hit, hit for power and run the bases, and he's typically a competent defender—to lean on than Cabrera, who was a bat-only star even in his prime.

The elephant in the room, meanwhile, is the likelihood that Yelich won't have to play the field for the entirety of his contract.

Expanding the DH to the National League was on the table (see here and here) as recently as last year. Nothing has happened on that front, but there's a good chance that the next collective bargaining agreement—the current CBA runs through 2021—will indeed make the DH universal.

Ultimately, the Brewers aren't biting off more than they can chew with a player whose stardom is on borrowed time. It should also be noted that they're set up well to build around Yelich. For now, he and Freddy Peralta account for the only guaranteed money on their books after 2022.

It's almost as if the Brewers have thought this thing through. That doesn't necessarily safeguard them from disaster, but they might not even have to cross their fingers for everything to work out.

           

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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