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Milwaukee Brewers 2020 preview by position: Center Field

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Milwaukee’s biggest free agent signing ever is looking to bounce back.

San Francisco Giants v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

On January 25th, 2018 — the same day as the Christian Yelich trade, if you hadn’t heard — the Milwaukee Brewers doled out their largest free agent contract in franchise history. A five-year, $80 mil deal for then-32 year old Lorenzo Cain seemed to run counter to the David Stearns’ rallying cry of “young, controllable talent,” but the center fielder made his GM look absolutely prescient during year one of the pact. Cain was an All-Star for Milwaukee in 2018, batting .308/.395/.417 with 10 home runs and a career-high 30 stolen bases for a 124 wRC+, the second-highest total he’s posted in a distinguished career. Along with his stellar defense, Cain wound up finishing seventh in MVP voting while helping the Brewers come within a game of winning the pennant.

Unfortunately, Cain could not maintain that level of production in year two of his contract. He dealt with nagging injuries all season long (including a cryotherapy injection similar to the ones that Ryan Braun has periodically received over the years) and saw his batting line fall across the board to .260/.325/.372 across 623 plate appearances. That was more than a 40 point swing in wRC+ from the year before, 124 down to a well below-average 83.

Cain’s biggest boost during his first year back in Milwaukee came from newfound levels of discipline at the plate, but those gains eroded somewhat this past season. His swing rate on pitches outside the zone rose by more than three points, his swinging-strike rate increased, and his contact rate fell. Cain’s 11.5% walk rate in 2018 came down by three and a half points back to pedestrian levels, and his strikeout rate —while still solid at 17% — was his highest since 2016.

On the other hand, several metrics do suggest that Cain suffered from some very poor luck last season. His hard contact rate (69th percentile) and exit velocity (58th percentile) were both better than the league average, and his barrel rate was actually improved from the year before. He traded a few ground balls for line drives and fly balls, but his contact profile was largely unchanged. The biggest disparity comes down to batting average on balls in play. Cain owns a career .339 BABIP and posted marks of .340 or above for five straight seasons from 2014-2018. Last season, however, Cain’s BABIP plummeted to a career-low .301, dragging his slash line down along with it. LoCain finished 2019 with a weighted on-base average of .302, but based on the quality of his batted balls, Statcast gave him an expected wOBA of .330. That’s roughly the difference between the 83 wRC+ that Cain put up last season and the 106 wRC+ he owns for his career.

Cain’s deeper offensive statistics have made a popular bounceback candidate at the plate for 2020, but one skill that he’s not likely to recover as he continues to age is his once blazing speed. According to Sprint Speed, Lorenzo maintained an average pace between 28.6 and 29.1 feet per second from 2015-2018, but he lost almost a full second in 2019, dropping down to 27.8 feet per second. Losing a step cost Lorenzo dearly on the basepaths as his stolen bases fell to 18 in 26 attempts. He had a deficit of 6 runs in baserunning value, dropping from 6.4 BsR in 2018 to just 0.4 in 2019.

Fortunately for Cain and the Brewers, his diminished speed did not dampen his prowess in center field. Lorenzo finally captured his long-overdue first Gold Glove in 2019, and the metrics largely agree that he was excellent on the grass. Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric ranked him in he 99th percentile, and he ranked second among all qualified center fielders in both Defensive Runs Saved (+22) and Ultimate Zone Rating (+7.0).

Even during a down year at the plate, Cain’s defensive value in 2019 helped boost his WAR to a respectable total — he was a 1.5-win player by Fangraphs rating and had a 3-WAR season according to Baseball-Reference. So long as he maintains his excellence in the outfield, Cain should continue to be a relatively high-floor player in terms of WAR even if his bat doesn’t recover as well many expect it to. With Father Time starting to affect his wheels, however, it is fair to question just how impactful Lorenzo can be during his ages 34-36 seasons while he remains under contract as one of the highest paid players for the Milwaukee Nine.

LoCain may be a candidate for regular rest days moving forward (again, much like Ryan Braun), and when he’s not in the lineup, expect free agent signee Avisail Garcia to get some opportunities to man center field. Garcia has only a little over 300 innings of experience in center during his big league career, but the coaching staff and front office raved about his surprising athleticism upon his arrival and stated that he would occasionally spell Cain at the position. Christian Yelich is also capable of playing in center, as is Ben Gamel, if he makes the roster as a reserve player.

In the Minors

As mentioned in the last post of this series, outfield is a relatively well-stocked position within Milwaukee’s barren farm system. Prospects Tyrone Taylor and Corey Ray as well as MLB veteran Keon Broxton are all likely to see time in center field for the San Antonio Missions (if minor league baseball is played this year). Top prospect Tristen Lutz is expected to shift to right field full-time as his body fills out, but he’s still capable of handling center field at present. Other players to watch further on down the ladder are Carlos Rodriguez, Joe Gray, Joantgel Segovia, Pablo Abreu, Micah Bello, Korry Howell, Larry Ernesto, Eduarqui Fernandez, Luis Medina, and Hedbert Perez.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Savant