Friday, May 1, 2020

Christian Yelich’s reported extension proves that some teams want to keep their stars

Christian Yelich’s

The MLB regular season isn’t due to start for another three weeks, but extension season has already begun. On Tuesday, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported that Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich, the 2018 NL MVP and 2019 NL MVP runner-up, is set to sign a contract that will keep him in blue and gold for the foreseeable future. According to Jeff Passan of ESPN, this new contract will supersede Yelich’s current deal, run through 2028 (with a mutual option for 2029) and pay the 28-year-old $215 million. That’s more than double the value of Ryan Braun’s five-year, $105 million deal, which had previously been the richest contract in franchise history.

Yelich played his first two years in Milwaukee on a contract signed before the 2015 season as a member of the Miami Marlins. Entering this season, there were two years plus a team option left on that deal, which made Yelich one of the most grossly underpaid star players in the game. That made him particularly attractive to the Brewers, who not only play in one of MLB’s smallest and least glamorous markets but also operate in a curd-based economy. (Not that that’s always a bad thing—with the stock market teetering on the verge of another collapse, cheese could soon be more valuable than any fiat currency.)

But Yelich’s emergence as a superstar has brought the Brewers to the postseason in consecutive years, and also apparently changed the team’s financial reality. While Milwaukee has let a few free agents walk this offseason—most notably Mike Moustakas and Yasmani Grandal—the franchise returns a talented young roster supplemented by targeted mid-tier free-agent acquisitions. Even with cost-controlled home-grown stars like Brandon Woodruff, Josh Hader, and Keston Hiura in the fold, though, it’s Yelich who transforms this team from a .500 club to one challenging for the pennant. He would have been incredibly difficult to replace if he’d wound his contract down.

Apparently, however, teams can persuade star players to forgo their impending free agency by offering lucrative contract extensions as an enticement. If the Red Sox had known about this two months ago, maybe they wouldn’t have traded Mookie Betts for peanuts, but c’est la guerre.

Yelich’s performance with the Brewers has generated universal acclaim, so it’s not exactly a mystery why Milwaukee would value him so highly, but it’s worth revisiting his statistical highlights anyway. In 277 games in a Brewers uniform, Yelich has hit .327/.415/.631 with 80 home runs and 52 stolen bases in just 58 attempts. In the past two seasons, Yelich has produced 14.7 bWAR; only Mike Trout, Betts, Jacob deGrom, Alex Bregman, and Matt Chapman have been more valuable in that time. In 2018, he led the NL in batting average and slugging; in 2019 he led the NL in batting average, slugging, and OBP.

More than that, since being traded to Milwaukee, Yelich has evolved from a solid table-setter player to one of the game’s biggest stars. And in doing so, he’s taken on a talismanic quality for the Brewers as the man who lifted the club from spoiler to the verge of their first pennant since moving to the National League.

If any part of this reported contract is worth unpacking beyond its obvious surface meaning, it’s the dollar value: $215 million over nine years. Because Milwaukee is buying out three years of a hideously team-friendly deal, and because Yelich would not have been able to hit free agency until the winter before he played his age-31 season, the Brewers got him at a discount compared to what they would have paid on the open market. Anthony Rendon signed for $35 million a year over seven seasons, while Manny Machado’s making $30 million a year for 10 and Bryce Harper is due $25.4 million a year over 13.

 Even other pre-free-agency extensions dwarf Yelich’s. Trout, for example, is making $35.5 million a year over 12 years, while Nolan Arenado’s contract earns him $32.5 million a year over eight years. According to Passan’s report, Yelich is due just a hair under $23.9 million a year. Even pricing in the fact that Yelich gets to rip up his current deal, and that he’ll be paid through his age-36 season, that looks like a steal. It would still be a steal if Yelich were to lose some of his power as the ball becomes un-juiced in the next year or two. (Yelich’s power surge is the result of his leading the league in HR/FB ratio each of the past two seasons, though he’s also among the league leaders in hard-hit rate.)

Even so, $215 million is a colossal amount of money for one of baseball’s poorer clubs to shell out, and that figure puts the lie to the idea that affordability is the driving concern when franchises decide whether to retain their biggest stars. Sometimes a team might anticipate a key player’s decline, or figure that an adequate replacement is coming internally and the money could be better spent elsewhere, but if the Brewers can afford a $215 million contract for Yelich, any team that’s serious about winning can extend its championship window until its stars begin to fade.