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The offseason that dramatically altered the Brewers and Cardinals’ fortunes

A look at the Yelich and Ozuna trades

St. Louis Cardinals v. Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Dylan Buell/MLB Photos via Getty Images

On December 14th, 2017 the Cardinals made a truly unfortunate trade. They traded Sandy Alcantara, Zac Gallen, Daniel Castano, and Magneuris Sierra for Marcell Ozuna. They did this in a year where their other outfield options were Harrison Bader, Jose Martinez, Tommy Pham, and Dexter Fowler. That was Fowler’s terrible year, but Bader had a 4.1 fWAR year and Martinez had a 2.2 fWAR year. They ended up having to trade Pham, because they couldn’t trade Ozuna and they couldn’t trade Fowler, so someone had to go to make room for Bader. So basically, they didn’t need Ozuna and ended up paying a high price to get him.

Why did they do that?

To understand the answer to that question, we’re have to go back to 2014. In 2014, the Cardinals had the #3 prospect in baseball and the future #7 prospect in baseball in their system (though he wouldn’t be #7 for two years). The Cardinals had an aging core at the time. Yadier Molina had seen his best days and was no longer a star. Matt Carpenter had settled into a pretty good player and hadn’t yet found power. Adam Wainwright had just had a 4.9 fWAR season but was entering his age 33 season coming into 2015. They needed a star, and they were counting on two of the best prospects in the game to become stars.

Then Oscar Taveras died.

Scrambling, the Cardinals did the best thing they could: found a replacement and traded for Jason Heyward. When Heyward became a free agent, they tried two approaches to find their next star. They attempted to sign David Price, and they even got so close that Price thought he was going to be a Cardinal, but then the Red Sox swooped in with a ridiculous offer they weren’t going to beat. Then they tried to sign Heyward, but the Cubs had the better offer (popular misconception that he signed a worse deal to be with the Cubs, but the Cubs offered opt-outs that made it more valuable). The Cardinals pivoted to Mike Leake.

Coming into the 2016 season, they still wanted a star, but it was one of the worst free agent classes in recent memory. According to MLBTR, the top position player and best free agent option was Yeonis Cespedes. If he’s the fourth or fifth best option, maybe you get him, but if he’s the top guy, oh that guy is getting overpaid for sure. Second best was 34-year-old DH Edwin Encarnacion and third best was Justin Turner, who wasn’t going to sign with anyone but the Dodgers. The Cardinals went with the fourth best option Dexter Fowler. Fowler’s signing makes way more sense in this context, even if it wasn’t the smartest move. The pitching options by the way were led by two relievers and the best starting pitcher was Jeremy Hellickson. This is legitimately a shockingly awful free agent class, truly mind-blowing.

The next season, options to grab a star emerged. Enter: the Marlins’ firesale. Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich. Three chances at a potential star. The Cardinals went with the most surefire star of the group in Stanton first. They reportedly had the best deal and the Marlins agreed. Stanton did not. He had a no trade clause and all four teams on his list that he would approve were teams that made it to the League Championship series. The Cardinals had missed the playoffs the year prior. Swing and a miss.

Some other needed context: Yelich wasn’t technically available. At the time they traded for Ozuna, Yelich was not available. The Marlins preferred to keep him. When Stanton was traded to the Yankees, and Ozuna to the Cardinals, Yelich demanded a trade. Ozuna was always going to be traded. Ozuna was traded three days after Stanton was traded. Four days after Ozuna was traded, there were news stories about Yelich being unhappy and wanting a trade. He was traded over a month later to the Brewers.

If you want to dissect why the Brewers have had the upper hand recently, it’s because of these two trades. The Ozuna trade could not have worked out worse for the Cardinals. The Yelich trade could not have worked out better for the Brewers. For what it’s worth, the Cardinals may not have been able or willing to beat the Brewers’ package. It was legitimately a lot of value. The fact that none of the prospects amounted to anything is besides the point: Lewis Brinson was the #18 ranked prospect in baseball and Monte Harrison was #75.

The Cardinals on the other hand, held the #17 ranked Alex Reyes, the #53 ranked Jack Flaherty, the #65 ranked Carson Kelly, and the #70 ranked Sandy Alcantara, and the #86 ranked Tyler O’Neill. O’Neill is roughly comparable to Harrison, but then it gets tricky. A top 20 pitching prospect will have less value in a trade than a top 20 hitting prospect because, well, look at what happened to Reyes. Not to mention a top 20 pitching prospect who hadn’t pitched since 2016. So then you’d probably have to throw another name in the top 100 if you include Reyes, and I got a feeling it’d be Sandy. Whatever alternate history you choose, I feel like Sandy is going to the Marlins. It would hurt less if Yelich provided MVP level production for a few seasons as a Cardinal.

The Brewers desperately needed Yelich in the first two years after the trade. Lorenzo Cain, signed in that same offseason, had a 6.1 fWAR season. Aside from that, they received very little production from outfielders not named Yelich in 2018 and 2019. Without Yelich, the Brewers do not win 96 games in 2018 and they don’t win 89 games and the 2nd Wild Card.

Meanwhile, Lewis Brinson was worth -3.1 fWAR while a Marlin. Monte Harrison only has 76 career plate appearances and is with a different organization, having recently been designated for assignment with that new organization. Isan Diaz was worth -2.4 fWAR in 500 PAs and is now in a different organization. Jordan Yamamoto had 15 okay starts in 2019, was astoundingly bad in 11 innings in 2020, and was traded after that season. The Marlins not only got nothing from this trade, they received negative value from who they got.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals traded Sandy Alcantara, who has been worth 11.4 fWAR so far in his career, but has already matched his 2021 season (in which he threw over 200 innings) at the All-Star break this season. He is signed through 2026 with a club option for 2027. This one is going to hurt for a looooooooooooooong time guys. Zac Gallen has emerged as a solid option - certainly not someone you miss in the same way you miss Alcantara - but he’s just pouring salt on the wound. He has only 5.7 career fWAR but that’s mostly due to minor injuries. He’s made 67 career starts. On a 32 start pace, that’s a 2.7 fWAR pitcher. The Cards could really use both of these pitchers.

Thankfully, they were right on the money with Sierra. It was a mystery at the time and it remains a mystery to me now how he was a semi-valuable prospect. He was 7th in the Cards system by Baseball America! I know speed is important - hard to ignore how important it can be when I watch the Cards - but he never showed even an inkling that he could hit even a little bit. And even Castano has made the big leagues - though he’s a replacement level pitcher with 85 career innings and 0.3 fWAR. He has 12.2% K rate and the Marlins recently optioned him to the minors, which was his last option so I’m guessing he will not be a Marlin next year.

And the worst part is that the Cardinals didn’t need Ozuna. Given the perceived value of what they traded at the time, they weren’t counting on him to duplicate his career best season. But they certainly hoped for it. The career 113 wRC+ hitter had two seasons with a worse hitting line than that as a Cardinal. They not only didn’t get his career best season, they got worse than his average season. Bader bested him in WAR that year and Martinez came close. Pham would have bested him had the Cardinals not traded him.... which they did in part because they traded for Ozuna. (There were other reasons he was traded obviously, but I definitely think they wait to trade him if the outfield wasn’t as crowded as it was).

And then in 2019, well they had Bader again - who had a very down year but was still better than Ozuna on a rate basis (and nearly matched him in WAR despite nearly 150 less PAs). That was also the year that Randy Arozarena couldn’t find plate appearances, and I’m going to take a wild stab and say if he got more chances, the Cardinals might not trade him or get more value for him if they do trade him. (I’m actually okay with the trade by the way)

And then the universe righted itself. Despite having three years left on his deal (if you include the club option), the Brewers signed Yelich to an extension. Definitely a deal that looked smart at the time, but this would maybe be a good example of why not to sign players to long-term deals three years before you need to. His salary went from $15 million in 2022 to $26 million plus $26 million for the next six years.

The Cardinals, feeling zero obligation to bring Ozuna back, let him depart for free agency. He had a monster two months during the COVID season, and then signed a hefty deal with the Braves. He’s been worth -0.7 fWAR in the last two seasons.

As an addendum, another move the Brewers made during that terrible offseason was signing Lorenzo Cain. The Fowler and Cain signings, at the time they signed the deal, are remarkably similar. Cain was a 32-year-old coming off a 4.7 fWAR season, Fowler was actually a 31-year-old coming off a 4.1 fWAR season. 5 years, $80 million for Cain; 5 years, $82.5 million for Fowler. Given the age difference, there was really no reason to think the contracts would turn out as wildly different as they did, although Cain really only had one (great) year.

The Fowler/Cain deals and the Marlins trade was just absurdly in favor of the Brewers. Like yeah Yelich was better than Ozuna, but he wasn’t an MVP candidate when they traded for him! And yeah Cain was better than Fowler, but he was also a year older and there was no reason to think he had a 6.1 fWAR season in him.

And to tie this into recent rumors, you could interpret this as a reason to trade for Soto (look at the Brewers’ results) or against (the value can hurt so much more than you would have ever imagined). Same information, different interpretation. One thing not up to interpretation: how much this sucks as a Cardinals fan.