On Sunday afternoon, with the St. Louis Cardinals clinging to a one-run lead in a game which would help equalize the season-opening four-game set against the Milwaukee Brewers, defending National League MVP Christian Yelich drove yet another in a long series of rockets into the outfield. The tying run easily scored, and while there was a decent chance that Ben Gamel was going to score from first base anyway, it was a horrendous throw into the infield from left fielder Marcell Ozuna that clinched the Brewers victory. And just like that, the Cardinals fell two games behind a team with whom they expect to compete for position all season long.
The hit was a continuation of Christian Yelich’s torrid ascent from merely very good Major League Baseball outfielder to world-beating superstar. While the discourse around Yelich has gotten a bit hyperbolic–teammate Ryan Braun issued the completely asinine claim that Yelich has been better than Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, and “maybe” Barry Bonds–it hasn’t been that hyperbolic. In addition to hitting home runs in four consecutive games to start the 2019 season, on his way to an absurd and wildly unsustainable 345 wRC+ in March, Yelich had an unfathomable 220 wRC+ in the second half of 2018. There are plenty of signs of regression in there (he had supernaturally high BABIPs and home run to fly ball ratios last year), but even with that considered, it is completely reasonable to proclaim Yelich is the best non-Trout, non-Mookie Betts outfielder in Major League Baseball.
On the other side of the field was Marcell Ozuna, Yelich’s former Miami Marlins teammate. The pair, two-thirds of an outfield which single-handedly kept otherwise horrible Marlins teams afloat, were traded not long after the Marlins’ transparent salary dump of Giancarlo Stanton to the New York Yankees. The two were somewhat in Stanton’s shadow, and neither was considered a considerably better player than the other. Ozuna had the superior 2017, but Yelich had the superior 2016. I’d probably have said I thought Yelich was better, but I wouldn’t have been adamant about it.
Marcell Ozuna had a decent 2018 season. He hit 23 home runs, he was a better than league average hitter, fielder, and baserunner by advanced metrics, and he was particularly effective in the second half of the season, hitting 31% above league average by wRC+. But his numbers were underwhelming compared to previous seasons, and they were particularly underwhelming compared to those of Christian Yelich, well on his way to leading the Milwaukee Brewers to the best record in the National League.
For Cardinals fans who were excited about the arrival of Ozuna, they couldn’t help but wonder how different things would have been had the team traded for Christian Yelich instead. An important caveat here is that the Marlins traded Ozuna first, and they had not committed (at least publicly) to trading Yelich until after they had traded Ozuna. But there was some inevitability to the Marlins, if they were going to trade the defending National League Most Valuable Player more or less to clear salary, looking to trade their other valuable, moderately costly players.
Had the 2018 St. Louis Cardinals been the exact same team but with Christian Yelich instead of Marcell Ozuna, there is little doubt they would have made the playoffs. Not only would they have a player who was roughly five Wins Above Replacement better, but the team which won their division wouldn’t have. But this wasn’t a binary choice–while Yelich might have been seen as the slightly better outfield option for 2018, he was seen as the far more desirable trade chip. While Marcell Ozuna had two years of team control via salary arbitration remaining before reaching free agency, Christian Yelich had signed a very team-friendly deal with the Marlins which kept him under contract through 2021. A team trading for Yelich in the 2017-18 off-season was trading for four years at just over $11 million per season, plus a team option for 2022. The market reacted accordingly, and Yelich was considerably more costly.
For Marcell Ozuna, the Cardinals sent four prospects to Miami. In a cruel bit of timing, one of them, Sandy Alcantara, had an excellent start yesterday, pitching eight shutout innings, but while he certainly has potential, he walked 6.09 batters per nine innings in six starts in 2018, and in 115 2/3 innings in AAA last season, Alcantara had somewhat pedestrian numbers–a 3.89 ERA, a 4.46 FIP, and fewer than seven strikeouts per nine in the heaviest strikeout era in professional baseball history. Magneuris Sierra was literally the worst hitter in baseball last year among players with at least 150 plate appearances, and the third least valuable player overall out of 392. Zac Gallen had a mediocre AAA season comparable to Alcantara’s, and in a not particularly deep Marlins farm system, he ranks just 19th on MLB.com’s top Marlins prospects list. And Daniel Castano stalled a bit upon reaching high-A, posting an ERA of 4.74. Of the 46 prospects ranked or at least listed by Marlins SB Nation blog Fish Stripes last December, Castano wasn’t one of them.
The Brewers likewise sent four prospects to Miami for Christian Yelich, but on the whole, it was a seemingly stronger crop than what St. Louis had sent. The most acclaimed prospect of the group was Lewis Brinson, an outfielder whom FanGraphs ranked #13 in all of baseball entering last season. Monte Harrison, #52 by the same list, also went to Miami. And while they weren’t quite as high-end of prospects, Isan Diaz ranks just outside the FanGraphs Top 100 and pitcher Jordan Yamamoto looked very impressive in high-A and later in AA last season.
Lewis Brinson stalled last season, having a season that looked abysmal in the Marlins outfield by any standard other than the one set by Magneuris Sierra, and while Monte Harrison’s prospect pedigree didn’t falter quite as dramatically, it did lose a bit of luster. But more relevant than what the perceptions of these prospects is now is what they were when the Christian Yelich trade was made. Last September, I looked at the prospect rankings for the Cardinals and Marlins at the time, and considered what it would take for the Cardinals to have landed Yelich (assuming Ozuna would have been traded to somebody else, an event I’ll concede was probably inevitable). In two of the three scenarios, the Cardinals would’ve traded Harrison Bader; in one situation, they part with top prospect (and currently dynamite-looking reliever) Alex Reyes, and in another, with rising outfield prospect Dylan Carlson and 20 year-old shortstop Delvin Perez. In the third, the Cardinals trade a bulk of the package used to acquire Paul Goldschmidt, Luke Weaver and Carson Kelly, as well as 2019 Memphis shuttle participant Daniel Ponce De Leon and AAA outfielder Randy Arozarena.
Any of these trades, with hindsight of knowing what Christian Yelich would become, would have been good trades, but given that it means we don’t get to see Harrison Bader’s rise in St. Louis nor Paul Goldschmidt, it shouldn’t be hard to see that the trade would have been risky. This was the industry consensus about the Yelich trade when it happened–the Brewers acquiring Yelich was exciting but ultimately risky, while the Cardinals trading for Marcell Ozuna was low-risk. And despite the Ozuna trade not working out as planned for the Cardinals, with the left fielder being merely ordinary in St. Louis, it’s also difficult to argue that, independent of Christian Yelich, the Cardinals have not “won” the trade.
And every word of speculation about the Yelich trade is based on a huge assumption–that the lack of a Lewis Brinson in a trade could be overcome. The closest thing the Cardinals had to Brinson was a pitcher, inherently riskier anyway, who had just missed a full season recovering from Tommy John surgery. It assumes that, even if the Marlins decided that Alex Reyes was a reasonable centerpiece, the Brewers couldn’t have improved upon their offer. It assumes that Yelich, at the more pitcher-friendly Busch Stadium, would have duplicated his Miller Park-fueled results. And all of this is done while ignoring that the Cardinals landed Marcell Ozuna for four utterly replaceable prospects.
The entire process surrounding the Marcell Ozuna trade still checks out, so even if it kept the Cardinals from acquiring Christian Yelich, that they could manage what they did is an excellent sign for their future. If a, like, 15th percentile outcome still winds up being an above-average player acquired for practically nothing, my hope isn’t that the Cardinals learned a lesson to avoid such trades, but rather to keep making as many of those trades as possible.
If I had access to a time machine, I’d tell John Mozeliak to make a trade that would have made Late 2017-Early 2018 Me furious in exchange for Christian Yelich. I’d also tell him to draft Mike Trout in 2009 instead of Shelby Miller. Hindsight is a valuable thing to have in these situations. But it would be unreasonable for me to think that Mozeliak was unreasonable for wanting Marcell Ozuna for a minimal prospect bounty (as an aside, I’ve noticed a large correlation between people who want to constantly accuse the Cardinals of being cheap and people who are mad that the Cardinals opted for Ozuna, the costlier of the two by projected average annual value, rather than the guy who would’ve cost the team more talented players).
Only St. Louis is fixating over the Cardinals not getting Christian Yelich. There are 28 teams who wish they’d made a trade similar to what the Brewers made, and there is a 29th, the Marlins, who wish they could’ve waited a year and driven up Yelich’s value even more. Had the New York Yankees pushed aggressively for Christian Yelich instead of the ex-Marlins outfielder they actually did get, Giancarlo Stanton, they’d be a better team with a lower payroll and Brian Cashman may have had the payroll flexibility to make a run at Manny Machado (such a trade probably would have cost the team a Miguel Andujar or Gleyber Torres-level infield prospect). But it’s hard to blame the Yankees for not making that move when the obvious team-improving one they did make fell into their laps. And it’s hard to blame the Cardinals for making the obvious team-improving move they did make, unless you’re just looking for reasons to get angry.