The Milwaukee Brewers won’t be confused with the Little Sisters of the Poor anymore.
After opening each of the last two seasons with one of the five lowest payrolls in the majors as they rebuilt the team, the Brewers pulled off two stunning and expensive moves Thursday to bolster their outfield.
Milwaukee fans were still rejoicing over the acquisition of sweet-swinging outfielder Christian Yelich from the Miami Marlins in a trade for four prospects when word came down the Brewers had signed free agent outfielder Lorenzo Cain to a five-year, $80 million contract.
In an offseason bereft of much activity, the Brewers sent shockwaves through the industry with their sudden derring-do. Cain’s deal is the largest signed so far this offseason.
The total investment of $123.25 million for the two outfielders — Yelich is due $43.25 million over the next four seasons — is not much below the $130 million in Opening Day payrolls the Brewers had combined in 2016 and 2017.
They’ve also reportedly made a multi-year offer for Yu Darvish, considered the top free agent starting pitcher available.
This is not the usual m.o. for a small-market team like the Brewers, but their unexpected success last season — when the club improved by 13 games and challenged for a wild-card spot before finishing at 86-76 — clearly convinced its brass to shift from rebuilding to loading up.
After the trade for Yelich, general manager David Stearns told news reporters, “Both offensively and defensively, we view him as a player who can contribute to a championship-caliber team. We think he has proven that over his young career and we expect him to continue to do so.’’
The inclusion of the word “championship’’ in Stearns’ statement may come as a surprise to those who view the Chicago Cubs, the two-time defending NL Central champions, as the division’s powerhouse, and the St. Louis Cardinals as their logical challengers.
After winding up in second place in 2017, the Brewers clearly have other ideas.
The biggest question remains whether they’ll have enough pitching, especially with staff ace Jimmy Nelson likely out until at least midseason following shoulder surgery in September. Right-handers Chase Anderson, Zach Davies and newcomer Jhoulys Chacin currently head the rotation.
Thursday’s transactions leave the impression the club will try to address its pitching holes by dealing from its surplus of outfielders.
Milwaukee got decent production from its outfielders last season, with starters Domingo Santana, Keon Broxton and Ryan Braun combining for 67 home runs.
Santana finally had the breakout season long expected of him, batting .278 with 30 homers, 85 RBI and an .875 OPS. At 25, he seemed like a foundation piece for years to come, but he has been the subject of trade rumors this offseason and now appears certain to be dealt for pitching.
Braun, with three years and $60 million left on his contract, likely isn’t going anywhere, and Broxton won’t bring back as high a return as Santana. Top prospect Lewis Brinson was sent to Miami as part of the package for Yelich, but lefty-swinging Brett Phillips is still available.
He may want to keep a close eye on his cell phone. The Brewers are on the move, and they don’t figure to be done dealing.