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Looking at the Yelich Trade 3 Years On

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Miami is entering the fourth season without Christian Yelich. The question today is “where are we now?”

MLB: Miami Marlins at Arizona Diamondbacks Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

While all MLB front offices are cognizant of the fact that times may call for franchise-altering talents to be shipped off, the Miami Marlins admittedly failed to learn their lesson after the debacle that was the Miguel Cabrera trade.

In five seasons before being traded—along with Dontrelle Willis—to Detroit following the 2007 season, Cabrera established himself as one of the premier hitters in the sport, slashing .313/.388/.542 with 138 home runs.

In return, the team would receive pitchers Dallas Trahern, Burke Badenhop, Eulogio “Frankie” De La Cruz, outfielder Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller, and catcher Mike Rabelo.

While Willis would quickly overstay his welcome in Detroit, pitching to a 6.86 ERA in just over 100 innings across 3 seasons, Cabrera would cement his place as one of the best hitters in the history of the sport.

The man affectionately known as “Miggy” would win back-to-back MVP’s in 2012 and ‘13, earn 7 more All-Star selections, and become the first player since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 to win the offensive Triple Crown. Since becoming a Tiger in 2008, Cabrera’s 51.3 rWAR ranks 4th among active players.

Wins Above Replacement (WAR) leaders since 2008.
Stathead - Baseball-Reference

To add insult to injury, Cabrera would further appear in four more postseasons, reaching the World Series in 2012.

As for what the Marlins got in return, Trahern would never appear in big league game, Badenhop would provide 1.8 rWAR, but still pitch to a sub-optimal 96 ERA+ (4.34) over three seasons, and De La Cruz would give the Marlins 9 innings of an 18 ERA before being claimed by San Diego. Maybin, who did manage to become a modest success at the big league level, totaled just 2.1 rWAR in parts of 4 seasons with the club, Miller pitched to a 5.89 ERA in his 4 seasons with Miami before being shipped off to Boston (then becoming a dominant reliever for nearly half a decade), and Rabelo would serve in a backup in 2008 before being released following the 2009 season.

Simply put, the trade would wind up being a disaster, and with hindsight, one could argue this to be a mistake the organization would look not to repeat.

The Marlins did not have to trade Christian Yelich in their first offseason under new ownership. He was already established as a very effective everyday outfielder, with a contract that tied him to the Fish for the next five years at below-market rates. Swapping him for prospects—albeit several well-regarded ones—was a risk. But nobody would have imagined the transaction looking this imbalanced three-plus seasons on.

The team would acquire Lewis Brinson, Monte Harrison, Isan Díaz, and Jordan Yamamoto from the Milwaukee Brewers for Yelich on January 25, 2018.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

While considered a “good” hitter for most of his time in Miami, there were signs of Yelich’s gradual ascendance to the upper-echelon of offensive players.

In 2016, his penultimate year with the Marlins, Yelich hit a then-career high 21 home runs and posted a career-best 135 OPS+ (.859 OPS). The team won just 79 games and missed the playoffs for a thirteenth consecutive year.

Since becoming a Brewer, Yelich has spread his wings into a top-3 player in the sport.

Only Mike Trout has a higher OPS+ (186) to Yelich’s 162 in that span. Yelich won the National League MVP once, and finished runner-up the following season. He collected NL batting titles in both those seasons, 2018 and 2019.

On a team level, the Brewers have made the playoffs each season Yelich has been a member of the club, advancing as far as the NLCS in 2018.

Miami’s return has done little to soften the blow of Yelich’s departure.

For Yamamoto, the pitcher apart of that position-player centered return, showed promise initially, but pitched his way out of the organization after 2020. He now resides in the Mets organization, serving as organizational depth should their pitching staff not stabilize during the season.

Díaz’s time with the Marlins may be nearing its end as well. He entered camp in competition with Jazz Chisholm Jr. for the open second base job, but after a .171 start to his career, and a spring training where he struck out in a third of his plate appearances, his place with the Major League club going forward is uncertain.

Brinson, the marquee name when the trade was made, has been among the lesser-productive position players in the sport, totaling -2.7 rWAR in Miami, trailing only Chris Davis in that span. The Marlins are attempting to salvage something from his skill set by deploying him against left-handed pitchers and as a pinch-runner/defensive replacement.

The book is not fully out on Harrison yet, as his career has been limited to 51 plate appearances.

Regardless, though, 2021 is a make-or-break year for the long-term analysis of this trade.

By total WAR, Yelich has produced 14.8 wins, while the proposed future assets to the next great Marlins team have been worth -5 WAR. In the Cabrera trade, Miami got 2.4 rWAR from a total of five players at the major league level, while Cabrera, and adversely, Willis, gave the Tigers 50.3 WAR, granted over a period of now-14 years where Cabrera has gradually declined.

Regardless, Yelich has nearly attained a third of that value in just three years, and it will only get worse should Miami see no return on transaction. While the pitching has been a bright spot amidst this rebuild, becoming a consistent winner will be difficult should the team fail to develop on the position player side.