Sometimes players are simply not appreciated for the consistent, valuable skills they bring to a club. One such player, the Miami Marlins’ Christian Yelich, would represent the type of guy that fans of the Milwaukee Brewers never knew they needed or wanted.
While most will focus on the Brewers’ quest for acquiring starting pitching - and deservedly so - GM David Stearns’ goal has always been to continue adding high-ceiling talent to the organization. Sure, the outfield appears to be flush with that type of talent, but much of it is unproven or unknown at the MLB level. If the Brewers’ front office believes their 86-win club from last season has sincere playoff aspirations in 2018, trading for a proven producer at a deep position would still make sense.
Some (many?) might be wondering: Is Yelich really that great of a baseball player? He may be one of the most underrated young outfielders in recent memory, especially playing in a sad baseball market and a challenging stadium in Miami. Not only has the 25-year-old Yelich been an All-Star caliber player the last couple of seasons, moving to Miller Park and reaching his peak ages would only enhance his value in years to come.
Speaking of Yelich’s value, he ranks 4th among all NL outfielders in fWAR since 2015. The three men ahead of him are Bryce Harper, Charlie Blackmon, and Giancarlo Stanton. Yelich’s 11.4 fWAR also puts him 11th among all MLB outfielders, ahead of guys like J.D. Martinez, Dexter Fowler, and Justin Upton. When factoring in all qualified position players, Yelich still ranks 34th, better than Robinson Cano and Edwin Encarnacion, to name a couple.
But perhaps WAR isn’t your focus. Well, one offensive area where the Brewers need help is in OBP. In 2017, Milwaukee ranked 17th in baseball with a .322 team OBP. Yelich owns a career .369 OBP and has never been below .362 in his five MLB seasons. For perspective, in the last 10 years, only five Milwaukee Brewers have had an OBP of .369 or better: Prince Fielder (four times), Ryan Braun (three times), Jonathan Lucroy (2014), Jonathan Villar (2016), and Domingo Santana (2015).
Sliding Yelich into the leadoff spot, another area of consternation for Brewers fans, would also be a terrific fit. Milwaukee’s leadoff men finished 20th in MLB in OBP (.320) and ranked 26th in OPS (.687) last season. Yelich posted an .807 and .859 OPS the past two years, well above Milwaukee’s rotating door in 2017. And while he doesn’t steal tons of bases - and who would risk it in front of Stanton - Yelich does have above average speed and has at least 16 stolen bases in three of his four full seasons.
Aside from the OBP, Yelich has some power potential, especially as a left-handed stick in Milwaukee. He has a least 30 doubles in each of the last four years, including 36 and 38 in the past two. Yelich has also added 39 combined home runs the last couple of seasons - a worthy number in spacious Marlins Park. A shift into hitter-friendly Miller Park would certainly boost his power numbers, much like it did with Travis Shaw, as was projected here.
How much would Yelich benefit from making Milwaukee his home park? As a left-handed hitter, it could be a big jump up in production. According to one measurement using ballpark factors, spacious Marlins Park ranks as the 5th-worst park for left-handed hitters when it comes to home runs (since 2014). On the flip side, Miller Park is the absolute best place for lefties to hit homers.
This measurement sets 1.00 as average, meaning everything above that number makes the ballpark a better place to hit. Miller Park had a 1.51 HR rating for lefties, while Miami posted a 0.81 mark - a large disparity. Yankee Stadium was the closest competitor to Miller Park, coming in at 1.38 for left-handed batters.
The stadiums in Milwaukee and Miami are similar to straightaway left and right field, but Marlins Park has much larger gaps as the center field fence sits 418 feet from home plate. Miller Park’s greatest depth is 400 feet. Plus, Miami’s walls range from 10 feet high up to 16 feet, while Milwaukee is just eight feet from pole to pole. With ideal conditions, helpful jet streams, and a short porch in right field, it’s not difficult to see Yelich adding 5-7 more long balls a season by moving west to Milwaukee.
For a comparison, look at what Shaw did last season in Milwaukee. He posted a .513 slugging percentage after a combined .442 mark in one-and-a-half years in Boston. Fenway Park now ranks as the 3rd-worst ballpark for home runs for lefties. Shaw’s overall power by way of the long ball saw incredible gains with the Brewers.
Not only did Shaw hit nearly twice as many home runs, his home run per fly ball percentage (HR/FB%) also took an enormous leap from 2016 to 2017. In 530 plate appearances with Boston in 2016, Shaw had 16 homers and a 10.3 HR/FB% on the season. Last year with the Brewers, Shaw blasted 31 home runs in just 76 more plate appearances, and he owned a 20.5 HR/FB% - nearly doubling his 2016 rate.
How about the defense, you ask? As always, that is a bit more complicated. Yelich won a Gold Glove in 2014, but nearly all of those innings came in left field. With the Brewers’ current roster construction, Yelich would be the starting center fielder, a position he played all of last season (155 games). By all accounts, he held his own in center, especially considering the vast space required to cover in Miami.
Looking at a couple of defensive metrics to get some comparison, Yelich would be seen as slightly below average. With both statistics, the measurements determine a player’s value in runs where zero is average. In fairness, defensive stats can be somewhat unreliable when using fewer than three years of data.
With that in mind, Yelich finished 2017 ranked 11th out of 17 qualified center fielders in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) posting a -6 DRS in more than 1,300 innings. The Brewers’ Keon Broxton, who logged just over 1,000 frames in center last year, posted a -9 DRS. Meanwhile, Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games (UZR/150) had Yelich tied for 10th with Blackmon at -0.7 UZR/150. Broxton, in comparison, was at -4.0 UZR/150.
When you break it all down, adding Yelich to the strong Brewers’ core could put their offense over the top without sacrificing much defense. When Ryan Braun needs days off, Yelich can slide over to left field and Craig Counsell can start Brett Phillips or Lewis Brinson in center. In all reality, only one of those last two guys would still be with the Brewers if Yelich is acquired.
The final questions regarding a deal for Yelich would be if the Marlins are actually willing to trade him, and what might the Brewers have to give up?
Though some reports said Miami was not looking to trade Yelich or Marcell Ozuna, that may simply be a smokescreen. With new ownership headlined by Derek Jeter and a payroll skyrocketing to more than $115 million in 2017, the Marlins are certainly open for business. They’ll first be focusing on swapping Stanton for prospects and salary relief, but everyone will have a price.
In terms of what they’d want from Milwaukee, that’s always difficult to gauge. Miami’s farm system is seriously devoid of high-level talent, so the Brewers could entice them with a sizable quantity of high-quality depth. In losing Yelich, the Marlins would probably want one or two of the Brewers’ outfield prospects, as well. And finally, Miami lacks a potential star shortstop in the making, meaning Orlando Arcia could be the biggest piece of a deal - as suggested earlier this year.
The ultimate beauty in a trade for Christian Yelich not only lies in his skill as a player, but also in the overall value the Brewers would be receiving. Milwaukee would be acquiring a proven asset who is under team control for another five seasons, making him a piece for the present and future. He also comes at an extremely team-friendly price, making just $7 million in 2018 and $9.75 million in 2019. The most Yelich is due to make in a season is $15 million, and that doesn’t happen until 2022, when his contract includes a team option and a $1.25 million buyout.
On the surface, trading for Yelich might seem a bit strange; however, acquiring a player who has posted a 4.5 fWAR in three of the last four seasons has enormous value. Plus, his arrival would make a trade of Brinson, Phillips, or other outfield prospects easier to swallow in the Brewers’ continued search for top starting pitching. In the end, it would be one major move to complement others that make Milwaukee a true contender.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference