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Christian Yelich or Marcell Ozuna? The Cardinals Should Go For Yelich

If the Cardinals miss out on Giancarlo Stanton, they figure to have a direct line to a deal with Miami for one of two outfielders: Marcell Ozuna or Christian Yelich.

Among the Marlins’ starting outfielders in 2017 Stanton is the big prize, but he has the right to veto any trade. But because the Cardinals and Marlins have been talking so extensively in discussions over Stanton, the teams can likely pivot to Plan B should Stanton reject a trade to St. Louis.

The Marlins have had plenty of time to study and vet Cardinals prospects. So if the Cardinals attempt to trade for Ozuna or Yelich, the Marlins will know what they want in return.

Just for purposes of discussion: would you go with Ozuna or Yelich?

That isn’t an easy call.

Ozuna is the more powerful hitter. Yelich is the superior all-around talent.

I would choose Yelich.

Here are the reasons:

1. Who is the “real” Ozuna? Last season he rocked 37 homers, drove in 124 runs, batted .312, had a .376 onbase percentage, and slugged a muscular .548 for the Marlins in 2017. It was, as we say, a breakout season. But does it mean Ozuna has turned the corner in his career? I ask for a reason: from 2013 through 2016, Ozuna slugged .427. His combined onbase-slugging percentage was .741 … much lower than last season’s .924 OPS. In his first four seasons, Ozuna homered every 31.4 at-bats. Last season he homered every 16.5 at-bats. I’d be delighted to see the 2017 version of Ozuna playing for the Cardinals. But what if the “real” Ozuna was the guy who often struggled from 2013 through 2016?

2. Yelich is 26, a year younger than Ozuna, and he’s under contract at a very reasonable price through 2021, with a team option for 2022. Basically, Yelich will collect an average of $11.25 million per season through 2021, and that includes a buyout for 2022. But if the Cardinals pick up the Yelich option for 2022, then they’d have him for five seasons at an average of $11.75 million per year. That’s a bargain. Which also means he’d probably cost more in the trade exchange. Ozuna is into his arbitration phase, and can go year-to-year until becoming eligible for free agency in 2020. Ozuna wouldn’t cost as much (salary) in the short term, but he could bolt as a free agent after he logs two more seasons … as of now, the Cardinals would have Yelich under contract control for either four seasons or five; with Ozuna that contract control could end after 2019.

3. Yelich has more skills overall. The Wins Above Replacement metric is a valuable measure to get a sense of a player’s all-around value. WAR takes every aspect of the game into account: hitting, defense and base running. This may surprise you — as it surprised me — but since playing his first full season with the Marlins in 2014, Yelich ranks 27th among all major-league position players and 9th among MLB outfielders with 16.0 WAR. He’s had more value over the same time frame than many notable outfielders including Charlie Blackmon, Russ Springer, Yeonis Cespedes, J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, Starling Marte, Adam Jones, Brett Gardner, Dexter Fowler, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Marcel Ozuna. Yelich is an excellent, athletic base runner with good range defensively; last season he was a +11 (Fielding Bible plus-minus system) on balls hit deep to center.  Fowler, the Cards’ center fielder, struggled mightily in 2017. According to the Fielding Bible, Fowler was a minus-9 on deep fly balls and a minus-37 overall. Yelich was a +14 on balls hit over his head and a +37 overall. He would be a HUGE upgrade in center-field defense.

4. Yelich has posted consistently terrific onbase percentages. In his three-plus seasons with the Marlins, Yelich has an OBP of .369. And he’s never had an OBP lower than .362 in a season. By today’s standards Yelich has outstanding plate discipline with a career walk rate of just about 11 percent and a strikeout rate around 20 percent.

5. Yelich has better power than you probably assume. If you look at his career slugging percentage, .432, it isn’t bad. But it seems light. Don’t the Cardinals need more power? Yelich’s overall slugging percentage has been held down by playing half of his games at Miami’s home stadium, which suppresses the power of lefthanded hitters. His career slugging percentage in Miami is .398. But Yelich has a much higher career slugging percentage, .462, in games played on the road. Looking at his splits, Yelich for his career has a batting average that’s 12 points higher on the road (.292) than at home; an OBP that’s 9 points higher (.373) on the road compared to home; a slugging percentage that’s 64 points higher on the road than home. There is a significant difference in his career OPS; it’s .762 in the Miami ballpark and .835 on the road. In terms of park-adjusted runs created, Yelich has been 28 percent above league average offensively when he isn’t hitting in the Miami park. As for home runs: a HR every 65.3 at-bats at home and a homer every 31 at-bats on the road.

5a. Yelich bats left. Ozuna bats right. And the Cardinals, as presently constructed, have a large supply of RH bats, outfield included. They could use a good lefthanded bat in their lineup.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

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