Christian Yelich's Extension: A Mistake in the Making
News broke that Christian Yelich is signing a big fat extension with the Brewers. With a mutual agreement for the final year, he could be looking at 9 years, $215 million, and being a Brewer through 2029. Immediately the praise came in for both sides. The Brewers got a star player at a discount, and Yelich is set for the rest of his career.
Here are the raw stats, pending further updates:
Yelich is 28, and had signed a 7 year $49.5 million dollar contract with Miami. This deal was signed prior to the 2015 season, and meant he was under control until 2023 at age 31. He was to make $12.5, $14, and $15M the next three years. His new contract essentially adds 7 years and $190 million to his current salary. His AAV becomes $27.14M, or 17th highest in history.
While it seems like a reasonable deal for both sides, I immediate found it to be a potential mistake. Right off the bat, consider that Yelich had 3 years of control left, at a very affordable rate. The small market Brewers have had a competitive window with him, and essentially just doubled his salary. Their reward was getting to keep Yelich around for the entirety of his 30's. Who knows what the state of their team will be in 3 years, and it may make more sense to trade him, but they gave him a full no trade clause.
Problem 2 is how much of the Brewers payroll they'll tie up in Yelich. In 2020, they are projected to spend $141M, Years before that it was $127M, $91M and $49M. 27/141 is 19% of their payroll, assuming they stay at that level. For the last 10 years running, Brewer payroll has been about $80M. Not saying that the Brewers will go back to that $80M level and Yelich will take up a whopping 33% of their payroll, but I also am not sure that payroll will stay as high as it is. The Brewers could be looking at a quarter of their payroll capabilities being taken up by one player, which is never a good thing.
Now the Brewers do have a few contracts that expire over the next few years. Braun and Cain are up soon, and then their payroll gets a lot more flexible. But they also did just spend the entire winter finagling their roster in weird ways to try and save a few bucks. Was it because they were trying to find every last dollar to sign this deal? This fat extension for Yelich could hinder them in pursuing any other players going forward.
There's also lots of questions about how Yelich will age. Yes, he's been an MVP caliber player for the past two years. He went from being a 4 WAR player to 7.5. His OPS went from an even .800 with Miami to 1.046 with Milwaukee. His improvement stems from an exploding home run rate, which went from 2.6% in '17 to 7.6% in '19. This is because of an exploding home run/fly ball rate, which jumped from 9% in '17 to 22% in '19. His other stats remained fairly consistent, but he found power. Will that keep up into his 30's? We'll see. Bat speed tends to degrade in a player's 30's.
Defensively, there are small questions brewing. He spent one full year in CF in Miami in 2017. Then in 2018, split time at the corners. Last year he was primarily in right. Now he being penciled into LF for 2020 because of an up and comer with a strong arm. He may have won a Gold Glove in 2014, but his CF defense was never good (negative Rdrs for career). Furthermore, his defensive stats have essentially been in decline since that
Gold Glove. Rdrs and fielding % both dropped, and his range has remained the same. As his defense degrades, the less value he has planing a sub-prime position with his bat. I think everyone has rose-colored glasses about a 1.000 OPS player playing a solid CF, but he has literally never been that player.
For the next 3 years, this contract will be just fine for the Brewers, if they can fill in their gaps internally. Can they stay healthy? The team had lots of key injuries last year, including Yelich himself. Can their minor leaguers contribute where free agent dollars can't? Keith Law just ranked their farm last in baseball, which doesn't point to long term success. There are questions that they are putting too many eggs in one basket, financially. If Yelich declines early in his 30's, this contract could sink the franchise for years. To me, there are enough questions to call this a mistake. It won't backfire on the Brewers any time soon, but I strongly suspect that it will hinder far more than it will help the club. This contract was a play to be extra competitive in the next year or two, while they still have a strong core. But considering Yelich was already under contract, I'd call it a waste of a move.
As it turns out, I'm not alone. Ken Rosenthal wrote in the Athletic on March 4th that "the Brewers might be better off trading Yelich rather than committing to him long term." He then goes on to cite the lackluster deals of Lorenzo Cain and Ryan Braun. While I think that Yelich is in a different class than those two, Rosenthal isn't wrong. Yelich's previously cheap contract and 3 years of control could have brought in a haul to reload the Brewers minor league system. Instead they put all their eggs in one basket.
The Brewers aren't really gaining much in this move. Yes, they maintain control over Yelich, but will they even want him in 3 years if they need to rebuild anyways? And at that point, how much trade value will Yelich have, likely as a LF who's best talent will be evaporating and cost $27M a year? This move doesn't help them in the present, and it's an unknown whether it will help them 3 years from now. Why make it at all?