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Now official, the Mookie Betts trade provides a glimpse of what may come for Christian Yelich

It doesn’t seem likely that he’ll be in Milwaukee for the long haul.

Milwaukee Brewers v Miami Marlins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

It didn’t go down exactly as it was first drawn up, but after clearing several hurdles, the deal was complete — the Boston Red Sox traded former MVP winner Mookie Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers as part of a five-player deal.

The motives for the trade were, largely, financial. Betts is slated to hit the free agent market after the 2020 season, and despite their position as one of baseball’s most storied franchises in one of the sport’s largest markets, the Red Sox were apparently not inclined to give him the mega-contract that he’ll surely — and deservedly — earn after reaching the end of his reserve control. Betts, who just recently turned 27, is fresh off his fourth straight All-Star appearance, fourth straight Gold Glove, fourth straight top-10 finish in MVP voting (including winning the award in 2018), and his third Silver Slugger award in four years.

Rather than choosing to seek the greatest prospect return, newly minted GM Chaim Bloom instead packaged Betts with David Price in order to shed much of the veteran left-hander’s remaining contract. Price, 34, dealt with injuries last year but was still effective when healthy, posting an 89 ERA- and 80 FIP- across 22 starts and 107.1 innings pitched. Price is owed $96 mil over the next three seasons, but now the Red Sox are only on the hook for half of that as the “cash considerations” portion of the transaction. After the deal was made official, Bloom confirmed that the club’s “need to reset” and get under the luxury tax threshold was a driving factor behind the trade, though he did say that he would have been open to trading Betts anyway for the purpose of “long-term sustainability.”

The state of the game today at the Major League level is such that the Boston Red Sox are telling their fans that they cannot afford to keep arguably the top player that they’ve developed this century. That sad reality should serve as a reminder to fans of the Milwaukee Brewers that sometime soon, they should begin to mentally prepare themselves for the worst when it comes to the future of Christian Yelich.

Yelich, of course, has become arguably the top player in the National League since getting traded to Milwaukee before the 2018 season. He’s won back-to-back batting titles while leading the Senior Circuit in OPS in each of the last two seasons, and was named the MVP in 2018 before finishing runner-up in 2019, due in large part to a freak knee injury that cost him the final three weeks of the regular season. And thanks to the long-term extension that he signed with Miami a few years ago, the Brewers can keep Yelich around for the next three seasons while paying him only a total of $41.5 mil during that time.

Assuming that Milwaukee picks up his 2022 club option, Yelich will finally be eligible to hit the open market in advance of his age-31 season. If he can keep up something close to the torrid pace that he’s been on the last two years, he will surely be justified in asking for beaucoup bucks from interested suitors. An average annual value of $30 mil certainly seems likely; a total contract in the range of Anthony Rendon’s recent seven-year, $245 mil pact with the Angels feels like a reasonable estimation for what Yelich might be able to fetch in free agency.

There is little evidence that spending that kind of money on a single player is something that David Stearns would be highly motivated to do. Signing Christian Yelich (who has spent time on the IL with back issues each of the last two years) to a long-term, big-dollar deal that would cover most of his 30’s does not exactly jive with his stated mantras of “young, controllable talent” and “sustainable competitiveness.” If $130 mil is the ceiling for payroll in Milwaukee, as the salary slashing that took place this past offseason would seem to indicate, then giving $30+ mil of that to one player would represent nearly 25% of that total.

Stearns, owner Mark Attanasio, and manager Craig Counsell constantly refer to the “challenges” that playing in a market like Milwaukee presents. With that in mind, don’t be surprised when the front office asks fans to understand that they cannot simply let a player like Christian Yelich leave the organization while recouping only a competitive balance pick for issuing him a Qualifying Offer. The organization will almost surely make some kind of token extension offer to Yelich within the next couple of years, but Christian owes it to himself and to the players who will come after him to seek the best deal that he can when once is able. He does want to become the face of baseball, after all. If extension talks get nowhere, then the trade rumors will begin to swirl.

Major League Baseball continues to see record revenues, totaling in excess of $10 billion last season. Franchise valuations keep rising. Each team receives some $200 million annually from revenue sharing. As pitcher Alex Wood recently stated on Twitter, “There are rich teams and there are really rich teams.” Yet owners and front offices are having an easier time than ever when it comes to justifying their reasons for letting go of star players. So do not be surprised if and when Christian Yelich is traded away from the Milwaukee Nine in the next couple of years for a substantial package of prospects. You can rest assured that it will be in the name of “long-term sustainability.”

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference