It’s too soon to know if the Milwaukee Brewers‘ acquisition of Christian Yelich from the Miami Marlins before the 2018 season will go down as one of the all-time great heists, but after one season and four games to begin 2019, Brewers general manager David Stearns must feel like he walked into the Louvre and left with the Mona Lisa.
Yelich homered for the fourth straight game on Sunday, becoming the sixth player to homer in his team’s first four games, joining Willie Mays, Mark McGwire, Nelson Cruz, Chris Davis and Trevor Story. That was only the first part of his Sunday heroics, as he came up in the bottom of the ninth with two runners on and the Brewers down a run — and did this off Cardinals closer Jordan Hicks:
— Milwaukee Brewers (@Brewers) March 31, 2019
Yelich had a perfect day on Sunday, going 2-for-2 with three walks. He hit .500 in his first series with six runs, eight RBIs, six walks and only one strikeout as the Brewers took three of four from the Cardinals. It was a nice lift for Milwaukee, which opened the season with closer Corey Knebel and All-Star reliever Jeremy Jeffress on the injured list, with Knebel electing Friday to undergo Tommy John surgery.
For a team that relied so heavily on its bullpen last season, it’s a big cloud hanging over the start of the season — especially with a tough schedule the first month. By the end of April, the Brewers will have played three series against the Cardinals, two against the Dodgers, plus facing the Reds, Cubs, Angels, Mets and Rockies.
That puts a lot of pressure on Yelich to show his 2018 MVP season wasn’t a fluke. He nearly won the Triple Crown thanks to a Babe Ruth-like second half, hitting .367/.449/.770 with 25 home runs in 65 games. In September, with a division title at stake, Yelich hit .370, slugged .804 and drove in 34 runs in 27 games. It was one of the best clutch stretch runs in MLB history. Ryan Braun is just one teammate in awe of Yelich right now:
Ryan Braun on Christian Yelich: “I’ve never seen anyone this good at baseball for this long. I mean, maybe Bonds in his prime. As great as Trout is. I’ve seen Pujols. Like, I’ve never seen anyone this good for this long.”
— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) March 31, 2019
What makes the Yelich trade such a steal so far — we’ll see how the four prospects (Lewis Brinson, Monte Harrison, Isan Diaz, Jordan Yamamoto) the Marlins received pan out, but the early returns haven’t been good — isn’t just acquiring an MVP, but acquiring an MVP on a team-friendly salary. Yelich signed a seven-year extension with the Marlins back in 2015 and earned $7 million in his MVP season. He’ll make $9.75 million this season and in 2020 — which would have been his first free-agent season — he’ll make $12.5 million. The Brewers will have him through 2022 for an additional $29 million, probably less than what he would have gotten on an annual basis as a free agent.
Aside from Yelich’s performance, the other big positives for Milwaukee this weekend came from Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes, who both enter the rotation after pitching primarily out of the bullpen last year. Woodruff, on the heels of a great spring training, had a solid first outing, allowing two runs in five innings in Saturday’s win. Burnes was electric at times on Sunday with 12 strikeouts in five innings, although he also served up three home runs — and they want cheap. The spin rate on his four-seam fastball averaged 2,912 rpms, the highest rate ever recorded for a starting pitcher, a key reason he induced 18 swing-and-misses. He has a chance to be very good.
So good first weekend for the Brewers. Here are some other observations from our first four days of action:
Mariners batter Red Sox starters: This entire series looked like bad college baseball from the heyday of the juiced-up aluminum bat era. The Mariners scored 28 runs in 15 innings off Red Sox starters, winning three of four, including a 10-8 win on Sunday. There was nothing fluky about those results either. All four starters — Chris Sale, Nathan Eovaldi, Eduardo Rodriguez and Rick Porcello — were hit hard. Sale lasted just three innings in the opener and served up seven runs on six hits and three home runs — all rockets. The other three starters weren’t much better. The starters’ ERA of 13.20 is the worst through four games of any team in the past 10 years. Here’s Omar Narvaez swatting a three-run shot off Porcello on Sunday:
Another day, another huge three-run 💣.
— Seattle Mariners (@Mariners) April 1, 2019
The Mariners are 5-1, but they actually should have swept the series. They blew a 6-1 lead in the second game when Mitch Moreland hit a three-run homer in the ninth off Hunter Strickland (who then landed on the injured list), and Seattle tried to blow the next two games as well. In Saturday’s 6-5 win, they led 6-2 entering the ninth when rookie third baseman Dylan Moore made three consecutive errors with two outs — two throwing errors and a booted grounder — before Nick Rumbelow finally struck out Xander Bogaerts to end it. On Sunday, the Mariners led 10-7 in the ninth when relievers Cory Gearrin and Chasen Bradford walked four batters before Bradford finally fanned Christian Vazquez and Jackie Bradley Jr. grounded out.
It was an awful first series for the defending champs, but no need to sweat. As Alex Cora said after the game about his starters, “We’ll be fine.” The Mariners have a chance to be interesting after this start, but that bullpen is comically bad and the starters won’t pitch deep enough into games to avoid those relievers.
Some good pitching performances! It wasn’t all ugly. Here are some of the good pitching outings that stood out:
• The Rays took three of four from the Astros, holding Houston to four runs over the final three games. Tyler Glasnow is a popular breakout pick after throwing well down the stretch late last season after the trade with Pittsburgh, and he held the Astros to one run in five innings on Saturday, averaging 96.6 mph with his fastball and hitting 100 twice to George Springer to start off the game. (Somebody was pumped up.)
On Sunday, the Rays eschewed the opener strategy and instead started Yonny Chirinos and let him go seven innings in a 3-1 victory. The Rays had planned to use an opener, but the bullpen had been taxed heavily the first three games, so Kevin Cash used Chirinos as a traditional starter. Don’t expect the Rays to give up on the opener, however.
“We’ll keep our versatility,” Cash said. “We’re not trying to gauge, like, if you do this so well then we’re going to let you start. That’s not the case. We think our best matchups are when we can be versatile throughout the entire pitching staff.”
The Rays’ secret weapons are flame-throwing relievers Diego Castillo and Jose Alvarado, who give Cash two relatively unknown but potentially dominant late-inning arms. This first series was an early signal to the rest of the American League: The Rays can pitch.
• The Padres’ youngsters impressed in taking three out of four against the Giants. Yes, it was the Giants, but holding any team to five runs in four games is a terrific run through the rotation. The Padres even had a surprise starter on Saturday, when they purchased the contract of left-hander Nick Margevicius, who pitched in Class A last season. He held the Giants to one run in five innings (although got tagged with the loss). Margevicius is a command lefty who didn’t even crack MLB.com’s or Baseball America’s top 30 Padres prospects — yet here is, skipping over Double-A and Triple-A.
Chris Paddack, meanwhile, was as advertised on Sunday, striking out seven in five innings and holding the Giants to two hits and one run. He relied almost exclusively on his fastball and plus-plus changeup, throwing just six curves among his 79 pitches.
• Trevor Bauer is a popular Cy Young pick — I’m pretty sure he’d pick himself to win it — and he showed why as he held the Twins to one hit in seven innings on Saturday. The Twins took two of three in the series, however, beating up Carlos Carrasco on Sunday and seeing Michael Pineda throw four scoreless innings — with an efficient 40 pitches — in his official return from Tommy John surgery. Pineda was hitting 95 in spring training, but mostly sat 89-91 with his four-seamer Sunday. It was 34 degrees at game time, so I wouldn’t read too much into those radar readings, and instead view Pineda’s outing as a potential big positive for the Twins.
And then we had the Cubs: And back to the bad side of the pitching ledger, there was Yu Darvish‘s start on Saturday, an absolutely agonizing performance as he walked seven batters in 2⅔ innings and threw 75 pitches, just 38 for strikes. Since he escaped jams the first two innings, it looked like he had a chance to be the first starter since Jeff Suppan in 2004 to walk 10 batters in a game. Alas, Joe Maddon came with the hook. Yes, first-start caveats apply here, but based on Darvish’s 2018 it’s an early red flag.
The Cubs ended up losing that game when the Rangers scored five runs late off the bullpen. That was bad. Then came Sunday. Cubs pitchers walked six more batters in an 11-10 loss and here’s how the winning run scored:
You could say we’re feelin’ pretty wild. pic.twitter.com/tAXtEZrOib
— Texas Rangers (@Rangers) April 1, 2019
Jesse Rogers has more on the Cubs’ debacle.
Finally … we give you the first of many: Bryce Harper‘s first home run for the Phillies came on Saturday, a 465-foot blast that goes down as Harper’s second-longest of his career via Statcast:
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) March 30, 2019
Harper hit a second bomb Sunday night as Philly finished a sweep of the Braves.
And with that, we wrap up our first “Real or Not” of the 2019 season. It’s good to have baseball back on our brains.