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Trade Analysis: Buying Christian Yelich is a way to focus on the present and future simultaneously

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Not all moves have to focus on just the present or future. The trade for Christian Yelich shows how both can be accomplished at the same time.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Colorado Rockies Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

In most MLB trades, each team typically has a primary focus for the trade: The present or the future. Either they are looking to get better right away, or to build players that will be good down the road. It’s rare to see a trade that can pull off both at the same time, and even rarer to see that when a team only gets one player in the deal. However, the Brewers managed to pull that off with the acquisition of Christian Yelich.

It’s hard to look at Yelich’s numbers and not be excited about what he can bring to the Brewers. In five seasons with the Marlins, he has recorded an fWAR of 17.2. Over the last four seasons, his 15.9 fWAR is 27th in all of baseball (fellow new outfielder Lorenzo Cain is 20th at 17.9). His career batting line comes in at .290/.369/.432 with a 121 wRC+, and he hasn’t fallen below a 115 wRC+ in his five seasons so far. He is a great hitter and a consistent hitter, which will be very welcome in the Brewers lineup.

In fact, it’s very possible that Yelich has been repressed so far by playing in pitcher-friendly Marlins Park. Back in November, Tim Muma wrote about the possibility of Yelich as a trade target for the Brewers. Here’s what he had to say about how Yelich could benefit from the move to Miller Park:

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.

That’s exciting to think about right there. Not only did the Brewers get a great hitter, but he might get even better in Miller Park. It’s not even that much of a stretch to consider. Over his career, only 18 of Yelich’s 59 home runs came at Marlins Park. The other 41 have come on the road. None of those have come at Miller Park yet, but it’s a small sample size (13 games / 55 PA). In addition, his hitting line is .278/.363/.396 with a 113 wRC+ at home, and .301/.374/.465 with a 128 wRC+ on the road. A boost similar to what Travis Shaw saw is definitely possible at Miller Park.

In addition to all of that, Christian Yelich is still relatively young in baseball. He’s only 26 years old right now, and can be controlled for five more seasons (four years plus an option). The cost does jump as his career goes on ($44.5 million guaranteed plus a $15 million option), but it also helps that the highest cost years come after Ryan Braun will likely be off the payroll. Plus, the Brewers are projected to get more than enough value from Yelich. Here’s what the ZiPS projections have to say about him:

That’s a projection of 20 WAR for Yelich in Milwaukee. To get that in free agency, the Brewers would have to look for another superstar and potentially pay much more. At a minimum, it would take another contract similar to what Lorenzo Cain got. To get a player like Yelich, and pay close to $3 million per 1 WAR, is a major win for this organization.

Of course, there’s the other side to this. The Brewers did have to give up quite a bit to get Yelich in Milwaukee. Three of their top prospects were sent to Miami in the deal (Lewis Brinson, Monte Harrison, Isan Diaz), as well as a rising prospect in the system (Jordan Yamamoto). For the Marlins, if even one of those prospect breaks through and becomes a star, it’s a win for them. Considering how highly rated some of them are, there’s a strong chance at least one will do that.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that these players are still prospects. There’s no guarantee what they will do over their careers. Predictions can only go so far, and it’s a gamble to wait and see what they will do. Of course, giving up the farm isn’t ideal either. The Brewers did that in the past with blockbuster trades, such as the ones for CC Sabathia and Zack Greinke. It left them depleted and is part of the reason they were forced to rebuild as they did. However, it’s also important to note that those deals were short-term only. Sabathia was gone after three months, and Greinke only had two years of control when he came to Milwaukee. Yelich can be a Brewer for five years. That’s a much safer return, especially when the prospect cost is so high.

The trade also helps balance the need to win now with the need to win later. Even if Brinson started playing every day in 2018, that’s only one extra year of control beyond what Yelich offers. There’s also more value to come from the other players in the deal, but all are still young and we don’t even know if they will make it to the majors, or stick if they do. In terms of value for the next five years, it’s hard to put it any better than this:

That’s realistic projections about what those players could do in the first years of their careers. It’s definitely possible that all of those players outperform those projections. If they put up close to the value that Yelich does, this deal doesn’t look as good in six years. However, that’s a gamble to take in itself. It’s easy to put on rose-colored glasses when losing players of this caliber and see these players as all becoming stars. History says that’s not likely to happen, though. By making this trade, the Brewers are trading the potential of these players away for a player that has already proven his potential.

There’s also one more reason to be happy about a deal like this: The Brewers did not have to give up any of their top pitching prospects to make the deal happen. They did give up one pitcher in Jordan Yamamoto, who is currently projected to be a bullpen pitcher. The top young pitchers (Josh Hader, Corey Knebel, Brandon Woodruff, etc.) were left untouched. In a deal of this caliber, it’s rare to see it pulled off without some level of top pitching prospect included. It’s a testament to David Stearns that he was able to protect most of his pitching talent and still gain a player like Yelich.

There’s definitely reasons to be hesitant about a deal like this. Trading four players for one is a high cost, and the Brewers have been burned in the long term by these trades. At the same time, though, a player like Christian Yelich is rarely available. Not only do the Brewers get a player that can help their team right now, they also get one who can still help their team in the future. The Brewers still have a strong farm system to fall back on, and by building up that system, they were able to pull this trade off when the opportunity came up. This was a very smart move by David Stearns and company, one that should strengthen the team for years to come.

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.