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Milwaukee Brewers 2018 Preview by Position: Center Field

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An old friend becomes new again.

MLB: Spring Training-Cleveland Indians at Milwaukee Brewers Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Center field was not a position of strength for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2017, either defensively or offensively. A slew of players made appearances in center, led by Keon Broxton and his 113 starts at the position. As a group, Milwaukee’s center fielders combined for -4 Defensive Runs Saved in the field, which was 21st in the MLB. At the plate, that same grouping ranked t-26th with a combined wRC+ of 80, and the 1.3 fWAR produced by the lot of them slotted them 24th out of the 30 MLB teams.

The Brewers could have bet on improvements from their relatively inexperienced assembly of internal depth at the position - Broxton and prospects Brett Phillips and Lewis Brinson - but looking to build off their 86-win campaign in 2017, David Stearns and company quietly opted to pursue a more sure-fire solution at the position. While most beat writers and fans were focusing on various ways to improve the starting rotation, the front office was engaged in behind-the-scenes negotiations with one of the top players on the free agent market - former Brewer Lorenzo Cain, who was coming off of a seven-year run in Kansas City that included a World Series ring. On the evening of January 25th, shortly after the Christian Yelich trade broke, the Brewers inked Cain to the largest free agent contract in franchise history - a five-year pact worth $80 mil.

Cain, who will turn 32 in April, should provide an immediate significant upgrade in center field. Since the Brewers dealt him as part of the package for Zack Greinke way back in December of 2010, Cain has established himself as one of the top center fielders in all of baseball. He’s been a strong contributor on both sides of the ball throughout his career, and he’ll be expected to provide some veteran leadership and playoff experience within a relatively young clubhouse.

The fleet-footed Cain can really go out and get it in center field and has graded out as a well above-average defender at the position during his career. His arm isn’t the greatest at this point in his career, but he makes up for it with a lighting-quick first step and tremendous route-running capabilities. Cain has logged nearly 5,300 innings in center during his big league career, and in that time he has accrued +73 Defensive Runs Saved. That’s 20 more runs saved than the next closest player with 5,000 innings in center since Cain’s debut season in 2010, with Michael Bourn checking in at +53 DRS.

Cain is no slouch at the dish, either. It took him a few years of adjustments to get truly comfortable at the plate, but since the beginning of the 2014 season, Cain has hit .300/.352/.437 with 45 home runs for a wRC+ of 114. He hasn’t ever walked a ton as a big leaguer but he also doesn’t whiff much, with his career strikeout rate of 18.6%. Cain slugged double-digit home runs twice with Kansas City, including 15 long balls last season. Despite his middling power (career ISO .131) and relative lack of base on balls (career 6.7% BB rate), he’s thrived as a hitter by putting the ball in play and letting his speed do the work. Cain has produced a line drive rate of 22.5% and a ground ball rate of 44.4% while making hard contact at close to a 29% rate across more than 3,000 plate appearances, which combined with his speed has helped him put together a .344 BABIP. His swiftness has also helped him to swipe 127 bases in his career with a near-84% success rate. Cain has never stolen fewer than 10 bases in any season in which he’s played at least 60 games.

There are a couple of bugaboos about Cain, with the first being a somewhat checkered injury history. He’s only played 140+ games twice in his career as he’s dealt with knee and hamstring injuries, among other various maladies. He did manage to appear in a career-high 155 games last season, though. He’s also on the wrong side of 30, with his new contract covering his ages 32-36 seasons at an average rate of $16 mil per year. According to research from both Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus, however, Cain has a good chance of aging gracefully based on a history of players with similar ages and profiles.

So long as Cain is healthy he will receive the bulk of the playing time in center field, though with his age and injury history as well as Milwaukee’s considerable outfield depth, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise for manager Craig Counsell gives him the Ryan Braun treatment as far as scheduled days off go. When Cain isn’t manning center, Christian Yelich will shift over from his regular duty in left and serve as the main backup at the position. Hernan Perez also saw some time in center field last season, though he probably won’t factor in much this season.

In the Minors

Given the additions of Yelich and Cain this winter, both Brett Phillips and Keon Broxton are likely ticketed for Colorado Springs to start the season. They’ll serve as the first line of defense in case of an injury to one of the four main outfielders, and both have considerable experience playing center field as professionals. Quintin Berry as re-upped on a minor league deal and will start in Colorado Springs. Kyle Wren also figures to start the year with the Sky Sox, giving Milwaukee an enviable amount of upper-level depth. Further on down the ladder are the likes of Corey Ray, Trent Grisham, Troy Stokes, Johnny Davis, Tyrone Taylor, Zach Clark, and Tristen Lutz.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference

Poll

When we look back on the Lorenzo Cain signing in five years, will his production at ages 32-36 have made the contract "worth it?"

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  • 73%
    Yes
    (259 votes)
  • 26%
    No
    (93 votes)
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