Once upon a time, in a far, far off land called Florida, there lived three outfielders. They lived in a magical house with a roof they could take on and off, and a giant flock of magical flying fish and magical pink birds that entertained them with lots and lots of funny dancing. it was a wonderful house, even if the people of the village were angry that a traveling man selling paintings had fooled them into paying for it.
Every night, the three outfielders would get together and play games. The biggest outfielder would hit a home run and throw out a runner. The skinny outfielder would hit a double to the opposite field, draw a walk, and make a graceful running catch in the gap. And the third outfielder? Well sometimes he would hit a home run, sometimes he would hit a double, sometimes he would throw a runner out, and sometimes he would make an amazing catch climbing a fence. Mostly what he did, though, was get ignored.
All three of the Marlins’ outfielders, who collectively composed perhaps the best overall outfield in baseball last year, have now been traded. Giancarlo Stanton leveraged his way to New York. Marcell Ozuna was dealt to the Cardinals after their own pursuit of Stanton hit the wall of his no-trade clause. And Christian Yelich is now a Milwaukee Brewer, having decided he’d very much prefer to not go down with the sinking Miami ship and publicly making his displeasure known.
It has been fascinating the last two days since the Yelich deal went down to read the thoughts of Cardinal fans now convinced the Redbirds completely, utterly failed this offseason, since they could only get the least of the three Marlin outfielders. Never mind that Ozuna was actually available at the time the Cardinals were negotiating with the Marlins, while Yelich was seen as a future piece for Miami at the time, and never mind that the bleating from these same fans would have been deafening had the Redbirds actually waited all this time to make a big move. It is a complete failure on the part of the Cardinals to force other teams to simply give them what they want for whatever price they wish to pay.
Okay, now that I’ve got that out of my system, let’s talk for a moment about what happened with the three Marlin outfielders, now all erstwhile Marlins. What happened was really rather interesting: each of the three outfielders ended up right where they should have, were one to assign them to a type of team.
Now, obviously, the Cardinals tried to get Giancarlo Stanton first, and probably would have preferred Christian Yelich had he been clearly available a month and a half ago (though I’m honestly not sure I don’t prefer Ozuna+what the Cards didn’t give up vs. Yelich at his talent cost), but ultimately acquired Ozuna rather than waiting for something that might or might not have come to fruition. So I don’t mean to suggest necessarily that Ozuna was obviously the best fit for the Cardinals, or that he was the guy they were targeting all along. What I am suggesting is that, considering the profile of each player, they all ended up basically where we should have expected.
Consider: Giancarlo Stanton was extraordinarily expensive, with an enormous contract attached. He cost a lot, so he was easy to acquire. Now, yes, the no-trade clause actually played into making him less available to baseball at large than would have otherwise been the case, but it was relatively painless for the club that actually acquired him to do so. The Yankees gave up very, very little in terms of talent assets to pick him up. So expensive, yes, but also easy.
This would suggest that the type of team likely to acquire Stanton was going to be a large-market club, able to absorb his contract and the associated financial downside risk, allowing them to throw around money instead of talent. Also a club, who, because of those incredible resources, is able to mitigate the injury risk associated with a player who has shown some fragility in his career. (Yes, Stanton has had a couple freak injuries, but he’s also had recurring leg issues to date as well.) A team exactly like the Yankees.
Christian Yelich, on the other hand, is basically on the exact opposite end of the spectrum. Signed to one of the team-friendliest contracts in baseball, Yelich fits beautifully into basically every club’s financial structure. He’s also been durable to date, having never appeared in fewer than 126 games since making it to the big leagues full time, and playing in over 150 each of the past two seasons. Even better, Christian Yelich is, or has been at least, one of the most absurdly consistent players in baseball so far in his career. Since becoming a full-time player in 2014, Yelich’s FanGraphs WAR totals have been 4.5, 2.6 (the one season he missed time due to injury, playing in 126 games), 4.5, and....4.5. That’s actually slightly eerie.
So what kind of club should acquire this cheap metronome? Well, he’s extremely affordable, and consistently very good, and so difficult to acquire. Thus, we want a team with very limited financial resources, playing in a small market. That’s the sort of team that will value the cost certainty Yelich brings most highly, and also the sort of organisation least equipped to cover losses in case of a star player getting hurt. The Yankees can always just sign depth; a team in a small market cannot afford to have their hopes torpedoed by an injury or down season. Thus, in addition to cost certainty, consistency of performance and durability are probably also going to be huge concerns for a team going after Yelich.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Milwaukee Brewers. Small market, limited payroll (although the Brewers do punch above their weight class in terms of fan support and financial muscle, to their credit), and in need of that consistent, durable bulwark of performance as they come out of a rebuild. They also, due to being in a rebuilding phase, have the talent resources to make a deal for an extremely affordable and thus very expensive (if that makes any sense), acquisition. Yelich is as safe a bet as there is in baseball to be both a consistent producer and a huge value. When you have small margins for error but lots of assets to use, this is the kind of player you most covet.
And then we have Marcell Ozuna, who is a really interesting third spoke of this wheel. Ozuna, admittedly, has a lower ceiling than Stanton, but comes with less risk, particularly when we’re looking down the road a ways. Giancarlo is certifiably awesome right now, and likely will continue to be for a good while still, but there is also the chance he ages poorly, or the injury issues come back, or he just isn’t as good as he has been once he moves into his thirties. If he doesn’t opt out, and ends up an average or slightly above player past 30 (or even worse, a perpetually injured non-factor), there’s a whole lot of money tied up in an unproductive contract there. Ozuna, meanwhile, is a little younger, and not on the books for ten years at $250 million+.
Compared to Yelich, though, Ozuna is a much riskier bet. I think he has an arguably higher ceiling than Yelich, even if the power increases for the latter moving out of Miami, simply because Ozuna has already proven he can be an offensive monster, with power that plays anywhere. However, he’s also been much less consistent in his career than Yelich, with both high highs and fairly low lows.
Ozuna is riskier than Yelich due to being signed for only two seasons, as well. An acquiring club in the case of Ozuna knows that he’s under control for a limited time, and will need to be paid — and handsomely — if they want to keep him around. He’s a higher-variance player, with perhaps a higher ceiling, but a lower floor. That riskier, less consistent profile makes him less painful to acquire than Yelich, certainly, as well as the less desirable contract. So what kind of team are we looking for to acquire Marcell Ozuna?
Well, we want a club with greater financial resources than Milwaukee, who feel relatively certain that if they decide Ozuna is their guy long term, they can get a deal done. You also want a club more concerned with spending talent resources, because they’re more comfortable spending those financial resources, even if only theoretically for now. An organisation less concerned with the downside than the Yelich team, because while it wouldn’t be ideal to have dead money on the books, they are relatively confident they can absorb bigger blows than can a true small-market franchise. Finally, you would want a club most concerned with ceiling, and less worried about floor. Perhaps a club that has established itself as a high-floor player production factory, and would prefer to actually introduce some variance into its profile to try and raise the ceiling of the team.
Which, of course, leads us to the Cardinals, who sit in that interesting grey area between small and large markets, with incredible organisational depth, but who have to be hesitant to spend the few high-end chips they possess, simply because they’re harder to acquire when you have committed to never, ever getting bad and rebuilding.
Marcell Ozuna offers a riskier profile than either of the other Marlin outfielders traded this offseason, at least in terms of near-term production, but is less potentially crippling than Stanton and a wager more suited to a club willing to flex its financial muscle over paying in talent than Yelich. If he’s great, he’ll be expensive to keep, but the Cardinals have the money. If he’s bad, or gets hurt, they can more easily afford to absorb that blow than could the Brewers.
Of course, the Cards also could have afforded to acquire Stanton, and seemed completely willing and able to do so. It would have been awesome, too. Well, probably awesome. Stanton going bad actually could have crippled the Cards in a way it can’t the Yankees. But still, probably super awesome.
All in all, though, what we have are three different former Marlins, each with their own set of risks and upside, different combinations of sliders to consider. The player the Cardinals picked up is the biggest risk, or at least carries the least certainty, but also comes with huge upside and less downside in one way or another than the other two. He hurt less to acquire than Yelich, and cannot poison the future the way Stanton might. Three different Marlin outfielders, and three different ways in which to try and build a winner. I think it’s fair to wonder if the Cards would have been better off pushing harder, or waiting longer, to try and pry Yelich loose, but for my part I’ll take the bird in the hand over what might be in the bush, and I think the upside bet on Ozuna is well suited to what the Redbirds needed to try and do this offseason.
In the end, I can’t say that I think the Cardinals got the best player of the three, and considering how little talent it cost the Yankees to pull Stanton I can’t even say they got the best deal. What I think I can say, however, is that all three clubs who traded for Marlin outfielders this offseason probably did exactly what they should have done, considering the parameters under which each operates.
And that probably means I can say I think all three outfielders ended up pretty much exactly where they should have, were we imagining prototypes for each acquisition.
No word yet on happily ever after, though.