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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

More:  Miklasz – California Dreaming? Stanton Should Talk to Ozzie, Big Mac and Jimmy Baseball

  • John W

    As far as I am concerned either of those two are just more of the same as what the Cardinals already have.. Neither strikes fear in a pitcher. If Stanton falls thru than management should look elsewhere for some real power.

    • Adam Stipp

      How does .312 avg, 37 HR, 124 RBI’s, .924 OPS not strike fear? Those are almost Pujols like numbers (when he was with St. Louis). I think those #’s are repeatable too.

      • John W

        Dont even try to compare one year of stats to Pujols, Ozuna never had more than a .269 average or 23 HR & .773 OPS in his previous 4 years. So as Bernie said who are you getting ?? Hence not much more than what the cardinals have !

      • TH

        Those numbers definitely strike fear in opposing pitchers. The problem is there’s only a one season sample of him doing this and prior to last season he slashed .265/.314/427 over a sample of 2000 plate appearances. I think a lot of what he did last year was sustainable going forward, but until he repeats this for 2-3 consecutive years there’s just too much uncertainty surrounding him. Especially when the Cardinals would have to sell off their farm system in order to get him.

      • Dennis

        Keep in mind that Diaz and Piscotty had great numbers for a year until the pitchers adjusted. They have seen more of Ozuna, so could be less of a risk.

  • Adam Stipp

    Why do I keep hearing that the Cardinals need another left handed bat in their lineup? Last I checked they have 3. Wong, Carpenter, Fowler. More than many other teams. So we need 4 lefties in the lineup now?

    Also, Ozuna has just now come into his own last year. Instead of still waiting on Yelich to break out, Ozuna has already done it. I think he’s going to be a .300, 30HR, 100 RBI, .900 OPS monster for years to come. Ozuna is good defensively too. I like Yelich but he’s not going to be that feared hitter in the lineup like Ozuna is.

    • James Berry

      Considering how Matheny deploys his lineups, having another lefty bat is a good idea.

  • TH

    Yelich is awesome. If they miss out on Stanton I’d love to see him as a cardinal. He may not be the big bopper this team could use but he is an extremely valuable player that can positively effect the outcome of a game in a number of ways. I’m not sure if I’m sold on him playing centerfield though. I don’t have access to the Fielding Bible stuff you referenced, but according to fangraphs he’s a minus 12 by DRS and a minus 8.6 by UZR for his career in center. In left field, however, he’s a gaudy +32 by DRS and is a +12 by UZR. I’d still love to have him, but he may profile better as a corner outfielder as opposed to centerfield.

    • Realist50

      I generally agree with you. I’m almost certain that Yelich is a better centerfielder than Fowler, but I think that Pham might be the best defensive outfielder in an outfield of Pham, Fowler and Yelich, meaning that Pham should play centerfield.

      Fowler had rated as a pretty bad defensive centerfielder prior to his time in Chicago, where the Cubs’ supposedly positioned him better. (That could be accurate, or it could just be some noise in the numbers. The general view is that it takes about three years of defensive stats to feel confident in what they’re telling us, which is a caveat that Bernie often overlooks.) His improvement in Chicago still put him right around a league-average centerfielder. He’ll be 32 in March 2018, so it seemed a reasonable expectation when he was signed by the Cardinals that he’d end up a corner outfielder sometime during his contract. If he can hit close to his level of the past two years (121 wRC+ in 2017, 128 wRC+ in 2016), that’s not really a problem. Fowler’s heel injury in 2017 pretty clearly didn’t help the defensive situation with him.

      So I feel pretty confident that Yelich is at least likely to be a defensive upgrade over Fowler in center. It can also be useful to roster construction to have two or three starting outfielders who can play center if needed, meaning that the 4th and 5th OF spots on the roster can be used for corner outfielders if the team wishes to do so. It’s easier to use Jose Martinez as the main outfield back-up to give the starters rest days, for example, with someone else sliding over to CF on days that the starting centerfielder doesn’t play.

      It doesn’t appear that either Yelich or Fowler has an ideal arm for RF, going by what both UZR and DRS say, but I don’t know if that’s a huge problem. As I understand it, most fans tend to overestimate how much arm strength matters to an outfielder’s overall defensive value.

      • TH

        Yea I agree that Yelich would be an upgrade in cf over Fowler, but then again pretty much anyone would be at this point. I honestly view Pham as the starting cf going into next season with Fowler in left. Whether that happens or not remains to be seen but at least the Cardinals are discussing it. I also tend to agree with you that outfield arm strength, while not insignificant, is often overvalued. The ability to cover ground is most important and I think an outfield of Fowler, Pham, and Yelich would do well providing they are utilized properly.

  • Nick Biondo

    I’m cool with Yelich as long as he’s not considered the “impact middle of the order hitter” we need. A really good player, for sure. But we will still need a thumper if we get him.

    • Realist50

      I very much disagree with your underlying premise. There are various ways to construct a line-up/roster and there’s no real need to hone in on value from one specific player trait. The key point is overall value in the goal of scoring more runs than the other team to win games. J.D. Martinez, for example, is undoubtedly an impact middle of the order hitter but also gives back some of that offensive value by being a terrible defensive outfielder.

      Now, it’s of course unlikely that a team full of really poor hitters is going to be a good team because it would need such great run prevention to win a lot of games and also because there’s some limit to how much defensive value players can provide (especially at non-premium positions that see fewer defensive attempts to turn batted balls into outs).

      The Cardinals, though, have several players who were well above league-average hitters in 2017: Pham, Jose Martinez, DeJong, Carpenter, and Fowler were all 20% or more above league average. Gyorko and Wong were both right around 10% above league-average. Molina was about 5% below league-average, which is good offensive production for a catcher.

      Now, it’s possible that we just saw Pham’s career season, that DeJong’s combination of a high strikeout rate and low walk rate isn’t sustainable, and that Jose Martinez isn’t as good as he’s looked in only about a half-season of playing time. But constructing a line-up with a lot of league-average or above hitters – which Yelich clearly has been and should be expected to continue to be – is a perfectly reasonable way to build a team with enough projected WAR to be a playoff team even without one truly great middle of the order bat like Stanton, Donaldson, or J.D. Martinez.

  • JeremyR

    Yelich is a very good player and they should acquire him if possible.

    However, he’s more of an incremental upgrade. He probably makes the team 2 wins better, not 4 like Stanton would.

    This team wouldn’t have been a contender even if they just added Stanton. That’s doubly so if it’s just Yelich.

    Also, because slugging percentage also includes batting average, it’s not a great judge of power. ISO is better, since it’s just slugging minus BA. As a high average guy, his ISO is not great, .140 career which isn’t terrible, but he’s not a slugger. He would be a very good #2 hitter

    • TH

      I wish more people would reference ISO instead of SLG% for this reason. Slugging % is a very misleading stat sometimes.

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    • Realist50

      If making the playoffs is how one defines “contender”, then with hindsight Stanton would have gotten the Cardinals there in 2017, and Yelich would have gotten the team most of the way there.

      The Cardinals finished 4 games out of the second wild card in 2017, and 9 games back in the division. Cardinals’ right fielders totaled 1.8 fWAR in 2017. Stanton totaled 6.9 fWAR in 2017, and Yelich totaled 4.5 fWAR. So, the simple math is that Stanton alone would have been expected to get the Cardinals the second wild card spot in 2017, and Yelich would have gotten the team within a game of it. Yelich might not have mattered, but the team also lost 2 of 3 to Milwaukee at the end of the season after being eliminated with line-ups such as John Gant as a starting pitcher and both Harrison Bader and Aledmys Diaz in the starting lineup.

      Projections for 2018 are a bit different, of course. Stanton and Yelich are both projected at Fangraphs (by the Steamer system) for lower WAR (5.3 and 3.9, respectively). The Cardinals are currently projected for 86 wins in 2018, and the first wild card, 1 game ahead of the Diamondbacks and 4 games ahead of the Pirates. The Cardinals are currently projected 3 games behind the Cubs. These will move around as teams sign free agents and make trades. I’d expect the Cubs’ projection to rise, for example, as they add starting pitchers and late-inning bullpen arms.

      • John W

        When using WAR for fielders it is easy to determine what might have happened in the standings, however if the bull pen had not lost 29 games the team most likely would have made the wild card if not caught the Cubs just winning 10 of those !

  • Jim Lahey

    I sure HOPE Yelichs WAR is better than Russ Springer, since Springer is a retired pitcher. Surely you meant George?

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  • Joe Belkin

    I know this will seem crazy to some but Yelich fits the Cardinals’ mold better than the other two. He’s a year younger than Ozuna and 2 years younger than Stanton. He’s signed for several years and at 26 probably hasn’t reached his full power potential. How many more years will Giancarlo hit 59 HR? Let SF have Stanton for 3 years before he bolts for LA and go with more of an all-around player.

  • James Berry

    Consider me the choir you just preached to. Also, he’s logged over 300 games hitting in the 3 spot with very good results, so he slots in there nicely for us.

    In tandem, i would like Abreu brought over in a trade to hit behind Yelich. That’s a very formidable duo to have as your 3/4 and hitting DeJong at 5 just makes it sweeter.

    A lineup of:

    Fowler
    Pham
    Yelich
    Abreu
    DeJong
    Gyorko
    Yadi
    Wong

    In my scenario, Bernie’s beloved Carpenter is DHing in the AL.

  • Realist50

    “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”

    The first part of that isn’t actually the case. MLB Trade Rumors estimates that Ozuna will get $10.9 million for 2018 in arbitration, and their estimates are generally quite accurate. That’s virtually guaranteed to increase in 2019 with how arbitration works, especially if Ozuna has a productive year in 2018. Yelich’s salary goes up over time – common in pre-free agency extensions – so his salary is $7 million in 2018 and $9.75 million in 2019.

    In practice, a likely trade would be for the Cardinals to acquire Yelich or Ozuna along with one or more of the Marlins’ players with bad remaining contracts (Chen, Volquez, Prado, Ziegler, Tazawa) and in effect pay more salary for Yelich or Ozuna but lower the prospect value required to go to the Marlins in a trade.

    • James Berry

      I think, if rumors hold true, Ziegler would be in any trade with the Marlins.

      • Realist50

        That makes sense. The Cardinals want to add bullpen arms, and Ziegler looks like he’s a potentially useful player but just paid above market at $9 million for 2018.

        The real commitment to this idea would be to take Chen and his contract with Yelich. Chen is due something like $50 to $60 million over the next three years. He’s had injury problems such that I don’t think he’d get more than a 1-year pillow contract for a few million per year as a free agent, probably plus incentives for innings pitched that would reward him for being healthy. It’s a contract that looks like it has huge negative value to it that should make a big dent in the prospects required to get Yelich.

        • James Berry

          Chen has one of those contracts that can only be traded for another bad contract. For the Cards to take that on and plan for him to be in the rotation would be a bigger detriment than the worth of getting Yelich. Flipping him would be nigh on impossible and releasing him is just throwing money away.

          • Realist50

            You don’t really plan for him to be in the rotation. Depending on just how bad his medicals are, you either rehab him and let him start the season, with the understanding that you’re almost certain to need a AAA call-up to fill in for him if/when he gets hurt, or you just acknowledge it’s all bad money and release him to free up a 40 man roster spot. In the former case, it’s a lot like Jaime Garcia from 2013-2015, where you don’t really count on having him but use him if he’s healthy enough to pitch well. With the rate of pitcher injuries, teams are smart to go into a season with a good idea of the next 2-3 starting pitching options after the 5-man rotation under any circumstances.

            Taking Chen’s contract is all about the way that basically every front office values players today, as either offering positive or negative value relative to their contracts based on a comparison with what their production would cost in free agency. That’s how the Cardinals would look at Yelich and Chen, and that’s how the Marlins would look at the prospects that they’re getting in return. The Marlins are also motivated to cut payroll. Yelich offers a huge amount of projected positive surplus value (over $100 million) due to his production and team-friendly contract, and Chen’s contract looks like almost 100% dead money because his health is so bad. A team trading for Yelich pays less in prospects by taking on Chen’s contract to pay more in money.

          • James Berry

            Go to Cot’s and just look at the stupidity of his contract. It is convoluted and was designed, i believe, because Loria knew he was going to sell the Marlins before it kicked in to anything that could cost him. Just as Stanton’s was back loaded so Loria could get out cheap.

            There is no way any GM or owner would willingly take on Chen’s contract unless they themselves were unloading something equally bad.

          • Realist50

            Yes, I’m aware that Chen has 3 / $52 remaining on his contract. And, yes, Loria did backload contracts almost certainly with the knowledge that he was going to sell the team and that the end of these contracts would be the new ownership group’s problem.

            To your second paragraph, though, there’s also another way that a team would take on Chen’s contract. That way is to get something really good along with Chen, such as Yelich with his team-friendly contract.

            To spell out the details: Yelich plus Chen essentially means getting Yelich for a 4 year / $95 million contract (plus a 5th year team option for $15 million), even if a team assigns absolutely zero value to Chen. That’s a deal that teams with payroll space should and would be willing to do because it’s way below what Yelich’s value would be as a 26 year old free agent who is as good as he is. It’s probably not far off the average annual value of the contract that he’d get, but in the open market he would get a lot more years pushing well into the expected decline phase of his career after age 30. His current contract covers what basically should be the prime of his career, and only the prime. The Cardinals should be interested in trading some prospects for Yelich plus Chen, and so would rebuilding teams with financial flexibility (the Phillies, probably the Padres, probably the White Sox) because Yelich’s team control goes out long enough (to 2022) that even a rebuilding team can expect Yelich still to be a really good player when they plan to contend in two or three years.

    • geoff

      It seems that the Cards’ top prospects are pitchers and outfielders, not so much infielders, even though they have like seven million second basemen under contract at one level or another. It has become more than apparent that the Cardinals do not place very much value on any of those vaunted outfield prospects. It is time to cut loose of all of them. As it stands right now they are all blocked, Pham has one spot blocked with his play and Fowler and Piscotty have the other spots blocked with their contracts. The Cardinals have been running around trying to trade for outfielders since last year. Either the prospects aren’t as good as we have been led to believe, or they just aren’t in the mold of what the Cards are looking for philosophically, which I think is the case.
      The Cardinals have somehow let themselves fall into the mistaken idea that walks and homers are the way to play offense and win. The way to win is to hit, pitch and play defense. The Cardinals used to hit , pitch, and play defense. The team that won the World Series in 2017, which was put together by a former Cards’ front office man, pivoted from that walk and homer philosophy that they had employed in 2016 and changed to be hitters…put the ball in play, play defense , and pitch. I am trying to think of which batter in their lineup was the feared “big bopper”. I don’t know that much about their lineup but Springer had some pop, Altuve, the five foot six dynamo was their big middle of the lineup bat, but he is not a swing for the gates guy, he is a put the ball in play and unload on mistakes guy. I don’t know but I think it is time for Mo to start getting rid of guys like Bader and Garcia, and particularly Sierra ( who wants to have some kid who runs like the wind, catches everything hit into the outfield, has a plus arm, but doesn’t hit home runs, he just turns routine base hits into doubles and goes first to third like most players go first to second). I say get busy…start unloading all of these base-hit speed guys….go out and load up on more Grichuks and change those hitters like Piscotty into confused strikeout guys and take doubles machines like Carpenter and send them up there looking to walk so that the next three guys can try to hit a home run. If the Cards don’t change their base philosophy of how the game should be played, it won’t matter who they pick up. We saw how well the Marlins did with all three of the outfielders that so many people in St Louis are pining for. I don’t get it.

  • LawrenceKScardsfan

    Like Yelich. Like Stanton a lot more.

  • Ande Hebert

    Ozuna will not save the Cards salary over the short term as compared to Yelich. Ozuna will likely get at least the average Yelich salary through arbitration next season-probably more, and Ozuna is predicted to fetch $12-14million next season in arbitration and could command significantly more than that in 2019. Yelich averages $11-$12million over the life of his deal but I believe next season gets around $10million with small increases yearly.

  • Matt Roberson

    Yellich is a really nice player. But he strikes fear into nobody. You’re showing the typical Cardinals conservative way of thinking, Bernie. He’s got a really nice WAR. He’s a year younger. He saves us a couple of bucks. Yipppppppppppeeeeee.

    You gotta roll the dice sometimes if you want to win. Playing it safe is for second place losers. Ozuna may be the bigger gamble, but he also can be the bigger reward. Give me the guy with 37 bombs and 124 RBIs.

  • keith walker

    Yelich is a very solid player much preferred over ozuna IMO as he has been more consistant and is better tools player and would be cardinal fav and he is controlled. O could bolt after couple of good years. could trade piscotty and grichuk which would be more in Miami’s price range.