In the spring of 2020, two or three years before he was set to hit free agency (depending on a 2022 option), the Milwaukee Brewers extended outfielder Christian Yelich on a seven-year deal that would keep him with the team for nine more years and $215 million. It was a big bet that the then-28-year-old would continue to be so good well into his 30s that it was worth such a long contract in order to get a reasonably low annual value (and risk signing it two years before he was actually able to leave in free agency).
The deal was roundly applauded as the Brewers stepping up to lock up their star, and was even received by many as a team-friendly deal when you considered that Yelich was coming off back-t0-back MVP-caliber seasons, in which he hit a ridiculous .327/.415/.631, with a 171 wRC+, and good for 15.5 total WAR. I had my doubts about the wisdom, for the Brewers specifically, of signing the deal two or three years in advance of free agency. I wondered if it was a future salary dump in the making.
But, man, even I didn’t see what was coming next. Because I certainly wasn’t claiming that Yelich was going to fall off a cliff as soon as he signed the deal. In the 129 games he’s played since signing the extension, Yelich has hit just .216/.365/.388 (107 wRC+) and has seen his strikeout rate jump from barely 20% to nearly 30%. Barrel rate? Down. Hard contact? Down. Soft contact? Up. Groundball rate? Up. It’s all just been a mess, particularly when compared to what he was in 2018-19. Heck, even compared to the guy he was in Miami, this version of Yelich has been deeply disappointing.
Not only have the results been rough, relatively speaking, but Yelich has also dealt with back issues that kept him out for a prolonged stretch earlier this year. Turned 30 later this year, you can’t assume those issues are going to get better for Yelich. It might just have to be managed.
Perhaps most concerningly for the Brewers, Yelich’s deal was structured to save the real money for 2022 and beyond: $26 million annually for the next seven years. If he is a league-average bat with below-average corner outfield defense for the duration of that deal? Yikes. So much yikes.
Now, then. Do I think Yelich is going to be that guy for ALL of the next seven years? Probably not. Maybe something is irreversibly wrong, but it’s at least as likely that it’s just 129 games of things being off, and he’ll right the ship. He might not right it to MVP level again, but I wouldn’t bet against him having some more excellent years in his future. You don’t hit as well as he did for two years and then COMPLETELY lose your ability to produce. (Right?)
That said, the contract, as of this moment, looks brutally bad for a Brewers club that isn’t going to have the ability to paper over that deal. They need Yelich to produce in the years ahead if they are going to stay competitive, particularly as their pitching core hits their arbitration years.
By the way, yes, I know that I just set up Yelich for a monster night against the Cubs tonight by writing this post.