The Marlins have sold off a bunch of valuable pieces this offseason. You might’ve heard. Giancarlo Stanton? Traded. Marcell Ozuna? Traded. Dee Gordon? Traded. Regardless of whether they were good baseball moves, the immediate consequences are obvious: The Marlins are going to be bad. They hope to eventually become less bad. Now, all along, the Marlins have expressed an interest in building around Christian Yelich, who’s under team control for a while, thanks to his existing long-term extension. We would’ve been able to guess how Yelich has felt about that idea, but now his feelings are just…out there.
Christian Yelich’s relationship with the Miami Marlins is “irretrievably broken,” and it would be in the best interests of both the outfielder and the organization if the Marlins trade him before the start of spring training, his agent told ESPN on Tuesday.
In truth, Yelich has only so much leverage. He has to honor the contract he signed, and it wouldn’t help him to tank his own performance out of spite. If the Marlins kept Yelich, he’d essentially have to just deal with it. But it makes sense to trade Yelich anyway, given what else has gone on. The Marlins have already had a number of conversations about sending Yelich elsewhere, and, long story short, we come to Ronald Acuna.
That’s the name that Peter Gammons mentioned on MLB Network. According to Gammons, when the Marlins and Braves have spoken about Yelich, the Marlins have insisted on Acuna being a part of the return. The Braves, for their part, have said, well, no. It sounds like Acuna might be untouchable. And that shouldn’t be particularly surprising. Acuna is coming off his age-19 season. He hit well in High-A, then he hit better in Double-A, then he hit better in Triple-A. In 2017, Acuna’s stock exploded, and he’s arguably now baseball’s very best prospect. He’s almost major-league ready, and if you’ve read FanGraphs for any amount of time, you know we typically caution against ever moving a young player like this. Someone like Acuna is almost as valuable as a prospect can get.
I don’t think the Braves should move Acuna for Yelich. But I think it’s also more a matter of timing, since the Braves presently aren’t very good. Outside of that, there’s a perfectly good argument to make. The Braves probably shouldn’t move Acuna for Yelich, but the Marlins aren’t unreasonable in making the request. That’s about how high the Marlins should be looking. If they’re going to trade Yelich anywhere, there’s no reason at all for them to settle.
Looking at Acuna, he deserves the hype. He’s outstanding, by the tools and by the numbers. Players aren’t supposed to do what he just did against quality competition as a teenager. Acuna, also, is completely unproven against big-league pitchers. His profile is great, but not perfect. You don’t need for me to tell you this, but top prospects have busted. And among the ones who haven’t busted, some have taken a while to develop. I asked both Eric and Kiley for Future Value (FV) grades. Eric put Acuna at 65. Kiley gave him a 70. Those are incredibly high ratings, but they also have precedent. Acuna isn’t something baseball has never seen.
What does that mean? We can try to further simplify things, by going to some admittedly complicated math. Last March, Dave wrote a post in which he attempted to value the top 100 prospects. I’m not going to go into detail about the methodology, so for those of you who are curious, you should click through. It’s all based on a number of estimates and assumptions, but values were calculated for prospects with different FV grades. Unsurprisingly, better prospects have been more valuable than worse prospects, and hitting prospects have been more valuable than pitching prospects. But to get right to it: a 65-FV position player was given a $70-million value. A 70-FV position player was given a $107-million value. Extremely valuable players! And this is our Acuna range. You can call it $75 – 100 million. If you want to be really generous, you can call it $75 – 125 million. That’s a rough estimate of how a player like Acuna would project.
Now let’s leave Acuna behind and move to Yelich. There are two things that make Yelich especially valuable. No, sorry, that’s wrong. There are three things. One, Yelich is only newly 26. Two, Yelich is good. Three, Yelich is under contract, for another five years and $58.25 million. Technically, that fifth year isn’t guaranteed, but it’s an affordable club option, so it’s team-friendly. Yelich is controlled between the ages of 26 – 30, and that spans a typical position-player prime.
Over the past three years, Yelich has been an above-average hitter with a combined WAR of 11.4. That puts him around names like Yoenis Cespedes, Robinson Cano, and Matt Carpenter. As far as projections go, I looked at Steamer600, which puts all position players over a common playing-time denominator. Yelich comes in at 3.7 projected WAR, making him a top-30 position player, roughly equivalent to Adrian Beltre and Alex Bregman. Yelich doesn’t rank among the elites, but he’s right there in the second tier, with no shortage of offensive upside.
Just using the numbers from our own internal contract tool, Yelich projects to be worth something like $175 – 200 million over the next five years. Those numbers seem awfully high for a player with a 121 career wRC+. Yet a huge factor here is that Yelich is still so young, so he’s not projected to decline. Jason Heyward was about Yelich’s age when he was a free agent a few years back. I know the Heyward contract doesn’t look good now, but Heyward had a three-year wRC+ of 116. Yelich is at 122. Heyward was and is superior in the field, but defense also isn’t valued so high, and Yelich’s offense feels more reliable. Heyward signed for eight years and $184 million, with two opt-out clauses. Heyward had also been extended a qualifying offer, which meant the Cubs gave up extra value. That was something beyond a $200-million contract, all things considered. Heyward received an enormous payday, in large part because he was available in his mid-20s.
When Justin Upton was older than Yelich is now, he signed for six years and $132.75 million. Upton was also tied to a qualifying offer, and Upton received his own opt-out clause. Upton is considered more of a raw power threat, but ultimately, Upton and Yelich have identical career wRC+ marks. They’ve just gotten there in different ways.
And one can’t ignore that Yelich could still become an even better hitter. There are some shades of Joey Votto in there, and you’ve surely read all about how Yelich generates strong exit velocities, but just hits too many grounders. In that way, he’s not too dissimilar from Eric Hosmer. Yet Yelich has already shown some progress, and to make matters all the more encouraging, he might flourish in another ballpark environment. Since Yelich debuted, he’s ranked in the 64th percentile in terms of wRC+ at home, but he’s ranked in the 94th percentile in terms of wRC+ on the road. Marlins Park doesn’t make it easy for lefties, and Yelich’s extra-base power has already been suppressed.
Yelich is a good young player already, who can hold his own in center field, and he’s both steady and promising. It’s difficult to see how Yelich’s offensive game could fall apart, but it’s not tough at all to see how he could break out. Not that it can be taken for granted, but it’s a part of the whole package, here. Last offseason, the White Sox traded Adam Eaton for three prospects, two of whom were ranked among the better pitching prospects around. Eaton’s five-year commitment was lower than Yelich’s by $20 million, but Eaton was also two years older, and he’s never hit the ball like Yelich does. Eaton’s age and contract made him hugely valuable. Yelich is similar, and younger.
I don’t know if Yelich’s value is more like $75 million, or more like $150 million. It depends on how much you believe in the upside. But no matter the range, the bigger point is that the Yelich range and the Acuna range have significant, if not full overlap. Which makes the Acuna ask sufficiently reasonable. Asking for a lot more, beyond Acuna? Then you’re asking too much. Then the Braves would be losing too much value. But the Marlins aren’t wrong to think Acuna makes sense, and if they can justify an ask for Acuna, they can justify an ask for pretty much any other prospect around. Acuna’s that good.
Again, at the end of the day, the Braves aren’t a perfect fit, because they’re not good yet. As the Braves’ organizational timeline goes, Acuna works better. Makes plenty of sense for the Braves to just sit this one out. The same would go for other rebuilding teams with elite prospects to offer, like the Padres. Yelich is most valuable to a team that’s ready to win in 2018. For those teams, the Marlins’ requests will be steep, but Yelich is worth a remarkable amount. He could pry an elite prospect from, say, the Blue Jays. He could pry an elite prospect from the Astros, or from the Brewers. This is clearly an incomplete list. The best prospects around are nearly untouchable, as they should be, but there are always exceptions to be made. Christian Yelich should probably be one of those exceptions. The Marlins are right to aim high. Yelich is worth it.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.