After the Milwaukee Brewers won 86 games and narrowly missed the postseason in 2017, most of us fans and analysts were left thinking about how’d they sort through their outfield logjam and which players would contribute most to getting over the hump the following season. Would Lewis Brinson or Brett Phillips break through at the big league level? What about power/speed center fielder Keon Broxton? At least we figured we could count on Domingo Santana and Ryan Braun for positive offensive production.
Slingin’ David Stearns and his brain trust in the front office had other ideas, however. Like, why not get in on the Marlins’ fire sale and swing a trade for All-Star outfielder Christian Yelich and his cheap, long-term deal? And how about simultaneously signing Lorenzo Cain to the most expensive free agent deal in franchise history at five years and $80 mil guaranteed? On that fateful evening of January 25th, 2018, both moves were executed.
There were, of course, plenty of people who were suspicious of the Cain acquisition. How and why would a cutting-edge, analytical front office like Milwaukee’s give such a significant sum of money to a player who be in his age-36 season during the final year of the deal? What was to be gained by blocking playing time from established players like Santana, or forcing Phillips and Broxton to toil in the minor leagues? Why didn’t the Brewers spend that money on starting pitching instead, which was a more glaring and obvious need?
But once the season started, Cain was able to quiet the doubters rather quickly. After batting mostly third during his memorable tenure in Kansas City, manager Craig Counsell tasked Cain with hitting atop his lineup. Cain handled his new role with aplomb, even changing his approach at the plate to better suit his table-setting duties. His swing rate dropped precipitously (49.3% down to 42.3%) as he adopted a more patient mindset, and the result was more pitches seen and a career-best 11.5% walk rate, a four-point improvement over his career average.
By the end of the season, Cain had set new career-highs with a 38.3% rate of hard contact, a .308 batting average, and .395 on base percentage, finishing with a .308/.395/.417 slash line along with 10 home runs. The 124 wRC+ he put together was the second-best offensive showing of his career, bested only by the 128 mark he posted during his other All-Star season in 2015. He hit for extra bases a little less often than he typically did during his days with the Royals, but helped make up for it by swiping a career-best 30 bases and adding 6.4 runs to Milwaukee’s ledger based solely on his base running skill.
Then, there are the contributions that LoCain made on defense. He has always been lauded as someone who can go and get it in center field, and he certainly lived up to that reputation in Milwaukee. He often made robbing homers and stealing away extra base hits look like routine plays with the way he glides around effortlessly on the outfield grass, and his ability to always know where to go with the baseball helped him rack up a career-best 11 outfield assists. Cain was credited with +20 Defensive Runs Saved in 2018, a career-high for him and the most that any outfielder produced last season. In fact, only three players at any position earned higher DRS marks than Cain last season. He was nominated for the Gold Glove award and his teammates and manager were puzzled when the voters somehow chose Ender Inciarte instead. If it is any consolation, Cain did take home the Fielding Bible award as the game’s top center fielder.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Cain’s 2018 season was that he stayed relatively healthy for the whole year. Last year was only the third time in Lorenzo’s nine-year MLB career that he appeared in at least 140 games (141) or took more than 600 plate appearances (620). He did have a short stint on the injured list in the summer, but other than that he was on the field nearly every day. Stearns and Counsell will be hoping for similarly good fortune when it comes to Cain’s health in 2019.
Cain doesn’t really have a true backup on the roster heading into this coming regular season, as both Yelich and fourth outfielder Ben Gamel profile better in the corners even though they have experience in center field. But, those are the two gentleman who figure to get sent out there on the occasions that Cain needs to take a breather. If it comes down to it, the club could always summon true center fielder Tyrone Taylor from the minors should Cain face any sort of extended absence this season.
In the Minors
As alluded to above, Tyrone Taylor would be first in line if the Brewers need to make a call-up for a center fielder from their farm system. The org’s top prospect once upon a time, Taylor made some adjustments to his swing and launch angle prior to last year before breaking out with the bat in a way that he had never shown before at any level of the minors. He popped 20 homers while posting a 110 wRC+ for the Triple-A Sky Sox, and did so without sacrificing any of his bat-to-ball skills, whiffing only 74 times in 119 games.
Another true center fielder who could see the big leagues this year is #2 prospect Corey Ray, who has shown some power in big league camp this spring after an offensive breakout of his own with Double-A Biloxi last year. He is another intriguing power/speed player, but his strikeout-proneness calls to mind the volatile profile of Keon Broxton.
Then there’s Trent Grisham still hanging around the org, though his development appears to have stalled. Others to keep an eye on further down the ladder are Joe Gray, Micah Bello, and Larry Ernesto.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs