MILWAUKEE — Brewers catcher Erik Kratz was reminded the other day of a text-message exchange he had with a friend back on Jan. 25. Kratz was in the Yankees’ system at the time, but he is also a big baseball fan, so the friend thought he’d be interested to hear that Milwaukee had traded for Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich.
Kratz revisited the exchange this week and got a chuckle.
“Why do you think they would do that?” the friend wrote. “They have a lot of good outfielders.”
Kratz responded that he liked the trade. He was a huge fan of Yelich, whom he believed would continue to grow into his lanky frame.
Then came more news to discuss. Right after the Yelich trade was announced, word spread that the Brewers had added another outfielder, Lorenzo Cain, via a five-year, $80 million free-agent contract.
What would Milwaukee do with all of those outfielders?
“I don’t know,” said Kratz. “But it worked out, because we’re here.”
The Brewers were on the eve of hosting the Rockies in Thursday’s Game 1 of the National League Division Series for a list of reasons that begins just like manager Craig Counsell’s lineups: With Cain and Yelich.
Cain, 32, is certain to appear on ballots for the National League Most Valuable Player Award courtesy of advanced metrics that value his on-base skill, fantastic defense and plus baserunning, which added up to 5.7 Wins Above Replacement by the Fangraphs measure, which put him in a tie for third in the NL with league home run king Nolan Arenado of the Rockies.
Yelich, 26, is the frontrunner for the NL MVP Award after winning the first batting title in Brewers history with a .326 average, tying for third with 36 home runs and ranking second with 110 RBIs. He led the league with 7.6 fWAR after leading qualifying players in MLB after the All-Star break with a .770 slugging percentage — a remarkable 145 points better than second-half runner-up Ronald Acuna of the Braves.
“It’s rare when you’re able to make two impact acquisitions in such a confined time period,” Brewers general manager David Stearns said. “We were very fortunate we were able to pull both of those off. Both of them could have fallen apart at stages of those negotiations, but we were able to pull through it.”
Did either of those deals actually come close to falling apart?
“Yes,” Stearns said. “I’m not going to go into specifics, but in any negotiation of that complexity, you always feel like there is a point you either don’t feel like you’re going to make the signing or make the deal. And then both sides regroup, and you’re able to push through and you get it done.”
Why both? A number of reasons, according to Stearns, including the way their bat-to-ball skills could help add toughness to an offense that had set MLB’s all-time team strikeout record the past two years in a row, the way their defense could impact a pitching staff not exactly stocked with aces, and that the Brewers could control both players for five seasons.
That was the idea: Run scoring and run prevention, wrapped up in two players.
The hard part was getting both of them.
“We were on a path to sign Lorenzo Cain, which was a typical free-agent process. And there were fits and starts in the attempts to trade for Christian Yelich,” Brewers owner Mark Attanasio said. “Maybe 48 hours before, it looked like they were going to converge.
“I said to David, ‘If you get one, do you really need to get both?’ And his answer, which was immediate, was, ‘If I can get one, it just makes me want to get the other one even more.'”
Attanasio thought about that for a moment.
“What I liked about it was it was really out-of-the-box thinking,” Attanasio said. “He really got criticized. ‘Brewers have 10 outfielders.’ Then when he got Mike Moustakas, it was, ‘Brewers have three third basemen.’ But we are in the position we are in because of some of this creative thinking.”
Even Stearns was surprised that the deals came together on the same day.
The players themselves were surprised, too.
“When I got the call telling me I got traded over, they said, ‘Stay tuned, we might have some more exciting news coming later today,” Yelich said. “I didn’t know what it was, and when you get traded, it’s a little bit hectic and crazy afterwards. But I saw that Lo ended up signing over here, and I was really excited.”
Yelich respects Cain’s postseason pedigree, which included back-to-back World Series appearances with the Royals in 2014-15, including a championship that second year. Teammates talk glowingly of Cain’s quiet leadership and his ability to walk around the clubhouse like every ligament in his body aches, then turn into one of the game’s most athletic center fielders the moment the bat hits the ball. Counsell compared it one day this season to ambling Cardinals outfielder Willie McGee.
Cain, in turn, said he learned about Yelich’s ability on the very first day of Spring Training. Players can tell these things around the batting cage.
“I didn’t really know much about him, being in the American League for so long,” Cain said. “But just watching his swing, how consistent it was, driving the ball to all fields, long and lengthy, he has power to all fields.
“Like I say, day in and day out, I get a chance to watch it, and it’s definitely impressive. He shows up every day, and you guys have seen it all year long. He’s been dominant out there.”
Naturally, both played significant roles in the win that kept them home to start this series. Yelich had three hits and an RBI in Monday’s NL Central tiebreaker game at Wrigley Field. Cain, after grounding out and flying out in his first two at-bats with runners in scoring position, hit a tiebreaking RBI single in Milwaukee’s two-run eighth inning.
Yelich said they were just trying to fit in.
“They had a great team last year. They fell one game short of the playoffs, and I think you’re just trying to add to what they already had,” he said. “You’re not coming over trying to be anything more than, in my case, the guy they traded for. Some good advice that I got from some guys that I played with along the way: They said be the same guy, do what you do, don’t try to do anything more or anything else. That was the goal from Spring Training.
“The group that we have in there was so welcoming, and it made the adjustment so much easier coming along. The first couple days of Spring Training you felt like you were a part of the team, a part of the family. And we’ve kind of just rolled since then.”