These clearly aren’t the bargain-basement Milwaukee Brewers we have long known.

On Jan. 25, Brewers general manager David Stearns swung a major trade for Florida Marlins star outfielder Christian Yelich. One day later, Stearns signed another outfielder, Lorenzo Cain, as a free agent.

Cain, who came up through the Brewers’ organization before being traded to the Kansas City Royals, probably isn’t worth the $80 million he will be paid over five seasons considering he will be 32 in April and is on the downside of career. But Yelich? His acquisition is so unlike the Brewers we have known for the better part of a half century.

He just turned 26. He is under contract for four more years, meaning Yelich doesn’t translate into another rent-a-star the likes of CC Sabathia and Zack Greinke. He had a .369 on-base average, scored 100 runs and drove in 81 last season. He gives the Brewers another left-handed bat. And he won a Gold Glove in 2014.

There is absolutely nothing not to like about this guy.

It appears that the Brewers’ braintrust is committing itself to rewarding some of the most loyal fans in baseball (2,627,705 last season) by bringing in elite talent instead of offering more smoke and mirrors. We sure have seen a lot of the latter since Major League Baseball returned to Milwaukee in 1970.

One of the numerous examples over the years happened in January 2002, when the Brewers called a press conference to introduce free-agent signee Eric Young, a then-35-year-old outfielder who would contribute 18 home runs and 59 RBIs in his two seasons in Milwaukee.

Yawn.

But Yelich suggests the start of a welcome new era. The Brewers also reportedly are one of the five finalists for the services of coveted free-agent pitcher Yu Darvish. Bringing in players of that caliber gives a clear signal that the Brewers are legitimately trying to close ranks with their rivals to the south, namely the big-spending Chicago Cubs, after having one of the five lowest payrolls in baseball each of the last two seasons.

Given the events of the last several weeks, the idea of that actually happening no longer sounds so preposterous.

The Cubs certainly have the more established lineup, which is fronted by corner infielders Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. Furthermore, it stands to reason that several Cubs who are coming off lackluster seasons, especially Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and maybe even perennially underachieving outfielder Justin Heyward, will come around – especially if new hitting coach Chili Davis connects with them.

But the Cubs have lost 40 percent of their starting rotation with the departures of Arrieta and John Lackey. That’s 22 victories right there. Jon Lester is 34 and his left arm has logged nearly 2,200 career innings. And All-Star closer Wade Davis was too expensive for even the Cubs, so he signed during the offseason with the Colorado Rockies.

As pitchers and catchers prepare to report to spring training within the next couple of weeks, it remains to be seen what Cubs resident master architect Theo Epstein has in mind. The two most vaunted free agents – Arrieta and Darvish – are still out there for the taking and smart money says Epstein will open his checkbook for one of the two.

He pretty much has to do something with Stearns having changed the landscape of the National League’s Central Division. The guess here is Epstein will eventually land Darvish since Arrieta’s price tag (a reported $200 million over six years), age (he’ll be 32 March 6) and diminishing production (successive earned run averages of 1.77, 3.10 and 3.53) are issues that can’t be ignored.

How this all shakes out won’t be revealed until well into the season, but there’s a lot to like about these Brewers.

Yelich and Cain will join a lineup that already features third baseman Travis Shaw (31 homers, 101 RBIs) and first baseman Eric Thames (31 homers, 63 RBIs). Young outfielder Domingo Santana had a breakout season with 30 homers and 85 RBIs. Shortstop Orlando Arcia is only 23 and was a surprise offensively last season by hitting .277 with 53 RBIs.

Ryan Braun is 33 and injury prone, but still produces when he’s healthy. Second baseman Jonathan Villar is still only 26 and could return to the form he had during a strong 2016 season.

The loss of starting pitcher Jimmy Nelson until well into this season was devastating, but the presence of Zach Davies (17-9, 3.90 ERA) and Chase Anderson (12-4, 2.74) at least gives this staff credibility. And reliever Corey Knebel (1.78 ERA, 39 saves) far surpasses anyone the Cubs have in their bullpen.

How much the Brewers have closed the gap with the Cubs remain to be seen. But at the very least, it’s a heck of a start.

After signing Yelich, Stearns was quoted as saying, “Both offensively and defensively, we view him as a player who can contribute to a championship-caliber team.”

How refreshing it is to see the words “Brewers” and “championship” in the same sentence. That’s something we haven’t seen much in the last 48 years.

Peter Jackel is a reporter for The Journal Times. You can reach Peter by calling 262-631-1703 or by emailing him at peter.jackel@lee.net

Peter Jackel is a reporter for The Journal Times. You can reach Peter by calling 262-631-1703 or by emailing him at peter.jackel@lee.net

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