4 potential motivators for Yelich in 2020

February 18th, 2020

PHOENIX -- If we have learned anything about Christian Yelich during his first two years in a Brewers uniform, it’s that he likes to play with a chip on his shoulder.

But after obliterating the idea of “regression” by following his 2018 National League MVP Award with a statistically-superior 2019, where will he find that chip for 2020?

“There's some other things. I've got a few things,” Yelich said on Tuesday morning, ahead of the Brewers’ first full-squad workout. “I don't want to get into them, but there will be no lack of motivation. I think as a player, the season is so long and so hard that you always find a couple of external factors to motivate yourself through the year.”

When reporters later suggested they would try to wear him down to get those answers, Yelich grinned.

“Good luck,” he said.

So, while we don’t know what might be driving the Brewers’ star beyond the obvious professional pride and will to win the World Series, here are some possibilities:

1. Coming off injury and changing positions
We don’t think this is it, but let’s lay out the situation anyway.

Yelich says he’s 100 percent recovered from the fractured right kneecap that ended his sensational 2019 season with three weeks to go, and prevented him from playing in the National League Wild Card Game. The Brewers don’t expect that injury to have any lingering effects on Yelich’s speed or mobility, good news considering he’s coming off a career-high 30 stolen bases and was the 10th different player in Major League history to post a season of at least 40 homers and 30 steals. He’s also moving to left field to accommodate the arrival of Avisaíl García, whose strong throwing arm profiles best for Yelich’s previous spot in right. Notably, Yelich won a Rawlings Gold Glove Award in 2014 as Miami’s left fielder.

“I'll play wherever,” Yelich said. “It doesn't matter to me. Whatever's going to make us our best, I'll play in left, right or wherever they want me. It looks like I'll be rolling in left again. I've done it in the past so it's not too big a deal. If it makes us better, I'm all for it.”

2. His friendly MVP rivalry
Was Yelich denied a second straight National League MVP Award by the foul ball that fractured his right kneecap with three weeks to go? It’s an intriguing question, since he had a strong statistical case against the eventual winner, Cody Bellinger of the Dodgers, but trailed Bellinger in counting stats including games played.

The two have become friends as they have risen to superstardom, filming a commercial for MLB last year and then spending time together during the All-Star Game. The best rivalries are often with one’s best friend.

3. Yu Darvish and the sign-stealing issue
Yelich was particularly adamant last month at Brewers On Deck that Milwaukee has not participated in the sort of illicit sign-stealing that earned the Houston Astros significant penalties.

“We have nothing to hide. We don't do anything like that,” Yelich said then.

In November, Yelich had a rather pointed exchange on Twitter with Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish after Darvish responded to a video purporting to show Yelich’s eyes shifting toward the Brewers’ bullpen during an at-bat against Darvish at Miller Park. Darvish later said he was not trying to accuse the Brewers of sign-stealing.

“Be better than this,” Yelich tweeted back. “Nobody needs help facing you.”

The Cubs and Brewers open the regular season at Miller Park on March 26.

4. The future
Yelich has said he loves playing in Milwaukee. The Brewers obviously love having Yelich in uniform. At some point, the sides will discuss whether they want to continue coexisting happily beyond the end of Yelich’s current, club-friendly contract.

Per terms of the seven-year extension he inked with the Marlins in 2015, Yelich earns $12.5 million in 2020, $14 million in 2021 and has a $15 million club option (with a $1.25 million buyout) for 2022. That means at the conclusion of this season, as Yelich is about to turn 29 years old in December, he will be entering the final guaranteed year of his deal -- often prime time for negotiations about an extension. Yelich has never come off as driven by money, but this will be his one crack at a mega-contract. He would be in quite a negotiating position if he can put together a third straight MVP-caliber year.

Were any of those four factors among the motivations Yelich has in mind this year? Or was it something else?

Only he knows.

“I think there’s levels of [competitiveness], for sure,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “I always make the point that all of those guys are at the top of the competitive world when it comes to people. That’s why they’re in the room. I think Christian sometimes surprises us because he’s just a humble guy, and sometimes those two things [humility and competitiveness], when they cross, it’s almost like, 'I didn’t expect that.' But it’s in there. He’s got a real drive and desire to be great. It’s there and it’s not going anywhere. It’s not going away. That’s why I’ve got so much faith in what he’s going to do every year.

“He’s at a point where he expects a lot from himself. He set a bar that is scary good. I think he always uses -- we all use doubters, man. Anybody who says they don’t use doubters in their life, I think they’re crazy. We always use them. No matter what line of work you’re in, you use them. And if you use them the right way, that’s really powerful.”