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Cain and Yelich rewarding Brewers for bold offseason splash

Milwaukee Brewers general manager David Stearns put the stamp on the signature day of his young tenure in late January, when he acquired Christian Yelich in a trade with the Miami Marlins and signed Lorenzo Cain to a five-year, $80 million free-agent deal in the span of a few hours.

Stearns didn’t have to wait until the season opener — or even the Cactus League opener — to recognize the impact the two players might have on organizational and box-seat morale.

Two days after Stearns’ twin coup, the Brewers held their On Deck Fan Fest event at the Wisconsin Center, and both outfielders traveled to Milwaukee to sign autographs and spend time with their new teammates. One encounter from the event made a particularly strong impression on the general manager.

“There was a lady wearing a ‘Cain’ jersey, and she ran up to Lorenzo and gave him a big hug and Lorenzo gave her a big hug back,” Stearns said. “It was this cool moment of genuine excitement on behalf of the fans and a player recognizing how special this moment was for this person and really embracing it and making it memorable. That kind of opened my eyes to what these guys, and Lorenzo in particular, can do in the community and can mean for the team.”

Cain and Yelich are a long way from achieving Hank Aaron-Eddie Mathews, Paul Molitor-Robin Yount or even Ryan Braun-Prince Fielder caliber of synergy in Milwaukee. But their 6.0 combined Wins Above Replacement and all the celebratory hugs at home plate suggest that Stearns’ instincts and owner Mark Attanasio’s willingness to spend money led them in the right direction.

After falling just short of the playoffs with 86 wins a year ago, the Brewers are making another run at their first postseason appearance since 2011 and only their third playoff berth since 1982. Their right-handed-hitting center fielder and lefty-hitting corner outfielder are making a difference in multiple ways.

Yelich, Milwaukee’s No. 2 hitter, has a .296/.369/.467 slash line and ranks sixth among MLB right fielders with a .361 weighted on-base average. His production looks even more impressive given that Lewis Brinson, the centerpiece to the deal from Miami’s end, is hitting .181 with a .561 OPS.

Cain, who has hit primarily in the leadoff spot, has a .389 on-base percentage fueled in large part by 42 walks — sixth most in the National League. He also leads MLB center fielders with 11 defensive runs saved. He’s added some polish to his game since the Brewers traded him to Kansas City seven years ago.

“He’s older, he’s wiser and he’s used his experience in the right way,” said Brewers manager Craig Counsell. “But he’s not impressed with himself. He never has been. He’s just a guy that tries to beat you. He enjoys the competition in the box. He enjoys the competition of taking hits away from guys. That’s the same as it’s always been.”

Darnell Coles, Milwaukee’s hitting coach, was around when both players were just young professionals trying to find their way. He was hitting coach for the Phoenix Desert Dogs in the Arizona Fall League in 2012, when Yelich, Kevin Kiermaier, Khris Davis and Nick Ahmed were among the budding big leaguers on the roster. And he was a roving hitting instructor with the Brewers when Cain was working his way through the system one rung at a time. Coles has seen both make subtle upgrades to their games on the way to becoming more complete professionals.

“They’ve done everything you could ask,” Coles said. “One is left, one’s right, but they both do a good job of working counts. They get on base. They don’t strike out a lot and they pay attention to detail.

“They hold each other accountable as well as their teammates, and it makes my job a lot easier because there are things I can say or talk to guys about and they’ve already beaten me to the punch. They’ve already taken care of it. They pick their spots, they both understand the game and how it’s supposed to be played, and they don’t hesitate to talk to a teammate if they need to.”

Yelich, 26, looked forward to spending the prime years of his career in Miami after signing a seven-year, $49.5 million contract extension with the Marlins in 2015. Then Jeffrey Loria sold the team to Derek Jeter’s group last fall, the organizational mandate shifted to a rebuild, and Yelich joined Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Dee Gordon in the procession out of town.

Even some of Yelich’s former teammates wondered how he might adapt to Milwaukee after growing up in Los Angeles and spending his first 4½ major league seasons in South Florida. But the culture shock of life in the Midwest has been outweighed by a vibrant baseball atmosphere he never experienced in Miami. The Brewers rank 10th in baseball with an average attendance of 34,333 per game, and Yelich is enjoying life amid the Famous Racing Sausages after playing for a Marlins team that peaked at 27th in attendance in his five years with the franchise.


“It makes it fun coming to the ballpark every day,” Yelich said. “We’re playing for something. Every game matters. I really didn’t have a say where I was going or what I wanted to do, but change is good sometimes.

“It’s a great fan base and they turn out and support you. Most of the games are jammed. They’re loud and they bring good energy. It’s definitely different than living in Los Angeles or Miami Beach, but Milwaukee is still a great city in its own right. As far as the baseball goes, it’s been everything and more than I thought it was going to be.”

Cain, a product of Madison, Florida (population: 3,061), is in his comfort zone with the pace and familiar surroundings of Milwaukee. He broke in with the organization as a 17th-round draft pick in 2004 and logged more than 2,500 plate appearances in the minors before finally getting his shot with the big club in 2010. Two months after the season ended, the Brewers sent him to Kansas City as part of a six-player trade for Zack Greinke.

Cain hit the free-agent market in November with a new cachet after playing for a world champion in Kansas City. At age 32, he’s the rare example of a player who commanded his asking price while going to an environment that was ideally suited to his temperament.

“I’m not a big-city guy,” Cain said. “Anybody who knows me knows that I don’t really like attention. I don’t like the city life. I’m more of a laid-back-type guy — very nonchalant. This atmosphere here, with the media not being crazy, that fits my style a lot more. It was like that in Kansas City too.”

Cain’s Milwaukee teammates gained a greater appreciation for his impact in Kansas City when the Brewers played a three-game series at Kauffman Stadium in late April. A crowd of 16,555 showed Cain lots of love with a standing ovation, and he responded by doffing his helmet and bro-hugging catcher Salvador Perez before going deep against Burch Smith in his fourth plate appearance.

“If he didn’t step in the box, they’d still be clapping,” Coles said.

Cain and Yelich both benefited from exquisite timing over the winter. They left rebuilding teams that sport a combined 51-98 record for instant contention in Milwaukee, and they enjoyed a fringe benefit with the transition to more hitter-friendly surroundings. In 2017, Miller Park was the eighth-best run-scoring park in the majors. In contrast, Kauffman Stadium was 22nd and Marlins Park was 28th.

While Cain’s home-road splits are almost dead even, Yelich has a .909 OPS in Milwaukee compared to .773 everywhere else. It’s heartening to know that if he catches a fastball just right, it’s not going to die at the track. And once the ball clears the fence, Bernie Brewer will hop on his plastic yellow slide and bring it home.

“It’s just a confidence thing,” Yelich said. “It’s not in the back of your mind anymore where you feel like you can crush a ball and you’ll have nothing to show for it. Everything is the way it’s supposed to be. You’re not necessarily going to sneak out many cheap ones, but the ones that are supposed to be homers are homers when you’re playing at home. As a hitter, I think it’s good for your psyche and your approach every day.”

From that first day at the Brewers’ On Deck event, Yelich and Cain both knew they had come to the right place. With some subtle prompting, Cain breaks into a smile as he recalls that warm encounter with the woman in the Lorenzo Cain Brewers’ jersey in downtown Milwaukee.

“A lot of fans came up to me and said, ‘We wish we had never traded you,”’ Cain said. “It’s almost like I never left.”

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