For the better part of the last decade, Ryan Braun has been manning left field for the Milwaukee Brewers. He won an MVP and five Silver Slugger awards as a left fielder, and helped lead Milwaukee to their only two playoff appearances this century. But on January 25th, 2018, Ryan Braun lost his spot as the primary left fielder for the Cream City Nine.
On that Thursday evening in January, David Stearns swung the most notable trade of his tenure as Milwaukee’s General Manager. He and his cohorts in the front office dealt away four of their top-30 prospects - including #1 overall Lewis Brinson and two other org top-10 players - to the Miami Marlins in exchange for Christian Yelich. The 26 year old was Miami’s first round draft pick back in 2010 and has been a superb contributor at the MLB level since he debuted back in 2013. Yelich signed a seven-year contract extension with the Marlins in 2015 that includes a team option for 2022, but when Miami began a fire sale under new ownership and shipped out Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, and Dee Gordon, Yelich expressed a strong desire to also be traded elsewhere. Milwaukee paid a steep price in prospects, but they’ll now have the ability to keep Yelich in a Crew uniform for another five seasons for less than $45 mil altogether.
For their troubles, the Brewers are getting a star-caliber player who has already accrued between 15.8 - 17.2 wins above replacement during his four-plus seasons in the big leagues, depending on which calculation you prefer. Yelich has posted a wRC+ of 115 or better each year he’s been at the game’s highest level, totaling a .290/.369/.432 batting line (121 wRC+) across 2,812 career plate appearances. He didn’t display much home run power earlier in his career but has hit 21 and 18 dingers in his last two seasons, and he’s also stolen 10+ bases four times in his career. Yelich has struck out in a little over 20% of his MLB plate appearances, which is a bit below the league-average in today’s offensive climate. When he does put the ball in play, there’s a good chance he's hit it with authority - he’s averaged a 35.1% rate of hard contact since 2013. Perhaps most importantly, Yelich is a consistent on-base threat who has drawn a free pass 10.7% of the time while in The Show.
There have been some rumblings about Yelich’s potential for untapped power, and how a move away from cavernous Marlins’ Park to Miller Park (one of the most favorable parks for left-handed hitters in the MLB) could be a boon for his home run totals. But as Jaymes explored a few weeks ago, a slight tweak in Yelich’s approach could really make a difference. Yelich is consistently among the league leaders in ground ball percentage, including a 55.4% rate last season. More and more players these days are taking the “elevate to celebrate” approach - trying to create more lift and a greater launch angle. Adding more lift to his swing to hit more fly balls could help Yelich become a threat to put 25-30 balls over the fence, though the young outfielder sounds hesitant to implement any major changes to the approach that’s worked so well for him thus far against MLB pitching.
Craig Counsell said early in the spring that Yelich would play most often in left field, and for good reason - he’s generated +32 Defensive Runs Saved at the position and won a Gold Glove award back in 2014. He’ll also see time in center as well as right field - which will be a new position for him in 2018 - as a part of the (crowded) outfield rotation. That leaves Braun as the quasi-backup in left, though he also figures to spend a good amount of time at first base.
On the surface, Braun is coming off arguably the worst season of his career in 2017. Multiple stints on the disabled list limited him to 104 games, the only time outside of his abbreviated 2007 rookie season and his suspension year in 2013 that he’s appeared in fewer than 135 games or taken less than 550 trips to the plate. His .268/.336/.487 slash equaled out to a 110 wRC+, the lowest mark he’s ever produced.
Digging a little deeper, though, it becomes more apparent that Braun was probably the victim of some terrible luck in 2017. His hard contact rate of 39% was the highest it has been since his rookie year, yet his .292 BABIP was the lowest he’s ever checked in with and nearly 40 points below his career average of .331. So Braun was hitting the ball as hard as ever last season, but the hits just weren’t falling like they typically do. He still managed to slug 17 homers and swipe 12 bags in his truncated season. Provided he can stay healthy in his age-34 campaign - which may be a tall order - Braunie should still have the ability to be a significant offensive contributor in 2018.
Yelich and Braun figure to receive the bulk of the playing time in left field in 2018, but a few other players could make some appearances at the position, as well. As things stand now, it looks like Keon Broxton and Brett Phillips will become victims of Milwaukee’s cornucopia of outfielders and begin the year in the minor leagues. But they are excellent players to have as depth if/when an injury occurs, and given the somewhat checkered health histories of Braun, center fielder Lorenzo Cain, and right fielder Domingo Santana, it’s quite likely we’ll see both Broxton and Phillips in Milwaukee at various times this season. Super-utility man Hernan Perez has also acquitted himself quite well in left, and his presence makes it easier for Counsell to carry only four true outfielders while having Hammerin’ Hernan on hand to fill in when needed. Eric Thames also saw some time in the outfield last year, but at this point it doesn’t seem likely he’ll be spending much time on the grass in 2018.
In the Minors
Phillips still technically qualifies as a prospect (and a top-100 by some outlets, to boot), so he can fit in under this category. Kyle Wren is in camp as a non-roster invitee and has posted some strong number the last two years in AAA Colorado Springs, though he isn’t though of very highly as a prospect. Troy Stokes shot up lists last season with a stellar campaign between high-A and AA, and will probably begin 2018 back in AA Biloxi. Clint Coulter and Tyrone Taylor are still hanging around the org, too. Further on down the ladder are a couple of first round picks who have yet to live up to expectations - Corey Ray and Trent Grisham. Tristen Lutz, Je’Von Ward, Zach Clark, Demi Orimoloye, Carlos Rodriguez, and Larry Ernesto (among others) are all kicking around in short-season ball.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference
Will Christian Yelich beat his current single season career-high of 21 home runs in 2018?
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