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First the Cubs, Now the Brewers. The Cardinals Face a Much Tougher Fight.

The Milwaukee Brewers were a surprise in 2017, resurfacing after an intentional rebuild that had taken them under for a while.

In the two seasons leading into ‘17, The Crew was socked with an average of 91 losses. They hadn’t made the playoffs since 2011. It was a rare visit to the postseason — only the second — since Milwaukee lost a seven-game World Series in 1982.

When the Brewers charged out to take the lead in the NL Central last season — accelerating to an unexpected lead of 5.5 games by the All-Star break — it was a fun development. A cute story. The Brewers would surely fade, and finish with another losing season. But hey … we could see the Brewers were gathering a few talented young players. Maybe they’d be good in a couple of seasons.

Except the Brewers didn’t fade. Sure, they were overtaken by the defending champion Chicago Cubs once the Cubbies came out of the post-championship champagne mist to got busy stacking wins. But Milwaukee hung tough and conceded nothing. On Sept 15, the Cubs led the Brewers by only two games.

The Brewers wouldn’t catch the Cubs … but what about adding a little more misery to the Cardinals’ mediocre season? And with the Cardinals playing blah baseball down the stretch — 20-20 over the final 40 games and disintegrating to seven losses in their last nine games  — the Brewers landed in second place … three games above a Cardinals team that finished in third place for the first time since 2007.

What would the Brewers do this offseason? Would they stay in the safe rebuild mode, accumulating more young talent and waiting for their prospects to mature? Would GM David Stearns add a couple of useful but modest pieces to give the roster a slightly stronger foundation — and then get aggressive before the 2019 season?

The Brewers weren’t thinking of staging an all-out attack on the Cubs and the Cardinals to seize first place in the NL Central. No way, right? Too soon.

We got our answer Thursday when the Brewers took advantage of their superb outfield prospect surplus to acquire coveted center fielder Christian Yelich. The Brewers parted with four prospects — most notably Lewis Brinson and Monte Harrison. They were ranked 18th and 75th, respectively on Baseball America’s Top 100 prospect review.

This was a big get for The Crew.

And even before the post-trade hoo-ha quieted down, the Brewers were at it again, reaching agreement on a five-year $80 million free-agent deal with former KC Royals outfielder Lorenzo Cain.

My initial reaction: the Brewers gave up too many prospects for Yelich.

And once they dealt for Yelich, then why would the Brewers need Cain?

Answer: because they could afford to sign Cain.

And it was part of an overall plan, related to other moves made, and others that could happen later.

The composition of Yelich’s team-friendly contract made it possible to pay Cain.  And by signing Cain and acquiring Yelich, Milwaukee now has a surplus of big-league outfielders. And that gives them a chance to build the blocks to climb even higher trading for a good starting pitcher … and filling out their rotation with a proven arm is the Brewers’ only significant need.

Yelich’s contract really set off this sequence. As ESPN noted, Yelich is one of only 12 position players with at least 3.5 WAR in each of the past four seasons. Yelich will hit for more power by having Miller Park as a home park. Miami had a tough yard for Yelich’s left-handed swing; last season his slugging percentage was 71 points higher on the road (.472) than at home (.401). He’s a plus base runner. He can cover a lot of outfield ground with his speed and defense.

And man, about the details of that sweet contract: Yelich is under Milwaukee’s control for at least four more years guaranteed, with a team option in place to keep Yelich with the Brewers for a fifth season. Assuming that the Brewers tap the option, Yelich will be paid $58.25 million over five seasons through 22. That’s an excellent, easily affordable, moderate-cost investment in Yelich’s youth (26) and skill set.

When you are assured of having Yelich and Cain playing side by side in the outfield for the next five seasons — Yelich in left, Cain in center —  it’s sensible to trade two promising outfield prospects to Miami to complete the first step of the sequence.

And where does this sequence go from here?

From the Brewers’ standpoint, the next step is a finishing-touch starting pitcher. The Brewers reportedly are willing to deal right fielder Domingo Santana, 25, as the centerpiece of a trade to make Milwaukee’s rotation whole. And this would be a formidable centerpiece; Santana muscled 30 homers and a .505 slugging percentage last season, and he can’t become a free agent until after the 2021 season.

If the desired pitcher is secured, the next step in the sequence is first place in the NL Central, a wild-card playoff spot, a return to the postseason, and a chance to pursue a World Series title in 2018 … 2019 … 2020 … and so on. The Brewers aren’t at risk of losing a prominent player to free agency until after the 2020 season.

What we have here my friends is a juicy, intriguing and legitimate  three-team struggle for possession of the NL Central and beyond.

The Cardinals used to own the NL Central.

Now they have two strong teams, the Cubs and Brewers, trying to throw them off the property.

Get this 2018 season started. This will be a wild one in the NL Central.

Thanks for reading…

And have a great weekend.

-Bernie

More: Wheeler – Brewers’ Moves Mean the Cardinals Better Be Right About Their Own ’18 Plans