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Christian Yelich is the Cardinals best Plan B

If the Cardinals can’t get Stanton, Yelich needs to be a priority

MLB: Miami Marlins at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

While we are waiting to hear on Giancarlo Stanton—and yes we are still waiting with an eerily quiet day yesterday—another Stanton article might be a bit much. While Stanton might still be the best fit for the Cardinals, and the team agrees given they have apparently made the best offer for him, it’s possible the Cardinals will soon be pivoting to Plan B. There aren’t a lot of great options out there, but Christian Yelich should be the focus.

There is ultimately going to be some disappointment if the Cardinals end up with Yelich, and some of that is understandable. Giancarlo Stanton is the National League MVP, one of the best offensive players in the game, and would transform an already good lineup into a great one. Christian Yelich might not fit the “big bat” mold, but he is still a player who would make the Cardinals a much better offensive team.

Last season was a bit of a down season for the Marlins center fielder, as his wRC+ was 115, off his career average of 121. Neither last season’s numbers nor his career numbers scream transformative bat, but Yelich also stole 16 bases in 18 tries and did very well taking the extra base adding runs with his legs. At the end of the season, Yelich was worth about 21 runs above average on offense, roughly the same as the 43-homer bat of Khris Davis and the 38-homer bats of Justin Smoak and Logan Morrison. Offensively, Yelich does just as much as some of the big boppers due to an ability to get on base.

For his career, Yelich has an 11% walk rate and a 20% strikeout rate, helping to create a .369 on-base percentage in 2017 and his career. There is some cause for concern as Yelich’s BABIP is a very high .356 for his career. If that BABIP is propping up his numbers and it comes down a bit—last year it was .336 which helps explain the lower 115 wRC+—then a bunch of his value on offense will be lost.

I ran a quick search of the Leaderboards over at Fangraphs for players since 1947 who had at least 2,000 plate appearances by the end of their age-25 seasons—Yelich turns 26 today, Happy Birthday, Christian—and I looked for players who had BABIPs between .340 and .370 who were above-average hitters. It did not reveal a very long list. Miguel Cabrera, Hanley Ramirez, Derek Jeter, and Matt Kemp were the only matches with offensive output ranging from 113 for Kemp to 125 for Jeter up to 137 for Ramirez and 138 for Cabrera.

Cabrera and Ramirez had higher power outputs and the three non-Kemp players had similar walk and strikeout numbers. The player Yelich most resembled was Jeter with good walks and strikeouts, high BABIP and decent, but not outstanding power. Of the four hitters, only Ramirez showed any sort of decline over the next four seasons, his wRC+ dropping from 137 to 128—which is still good—and his BABIP falling down to .314.

Of the other three players Derek Jeter’s BABIP remained steady at .350 and his wRC+ held at 125. Cabrera’s BABIP held at .347, but he struck out even less and hit for more power as he put up a 170 wRC+ from age-26 through age-30. Matt Kemps’s BABIP also remained high at .347 and his power output rose and his wRC+ was 137 over those years. So while there is a chance that BABIP could drop and eat into some of his value, we need to remember that for hitters, BABIP is a skill we often see maintained during a hitter’s career.

Power ages a bit later, and it is possible we see an uptick from Yelich in his late-20s, especially if he hits the ball in the air a bit more as his ground ball rate is a high 56% over the last couple years. For some comparison, here are a couple Steamer projections.

Player A: 26 HR, .289/.359/.482, 121 wRC+

Player B: 18 HR, .292/.376/.461, 123 wRC+

Which player do you want? It’s pretty close, right. What if I told you Player A was an average baserunner who could only play first base? What if I told you Player B was a very good baserunner who can handle all three outfield positions? What if I also told you Player B is two years younger than Player A? Christian Yelich is a younger version of Eric Hosmer with the bat who can run and play defense and wouldn’t displace Matt Carpenter and significantly worsen the defense. That’s just the projections. Yelich has been consistently better than Hosmer over the last four years even with Hosmer’s four-win campaign in 2017.

Then there’s the contract. Christian Yelich is making just $7 million this year and is owed just $44.5 million over the next four seasons with an option for 2022 that can be picked up for an extra $13.75 million. Yelich is an absolute bargain, which means the cost to acquire him should be greater than what it would cost to bring in Stanton.

The Marlins are looking at around $106 million in payroll even assuming they get rid of Stanton. If the rumors are true that the team needs to get down to $75 million, they still have a long ways to go. They can’t simply unload other contracts because teams wouldn’t want them. They have to package attractive players with unattractive ones.

That means Brad Ziegler is probably coming with Yelich, and it might mean Wei-Yin Chen is coming over, too. That puts the dollar cost for Yelich at around $26 million for 2018, still a bargain for a four-win player, and the total cost with Yelich’s exercised option at around $120 million for five years. If he were a free agent right now, he’d be looking at more like 8-10 years at the same average annual value. The Cardinals could offer to pay more in prospects not to take on Chen’s contract or perhaps taken on a lesser contract like Junichi Tazawa.

Christian Yelich is not Giancarlo Stanton, but he is a great talent and an incredibly talented ballplayer. Regardless of what position he played, he would provide an upgrade for the Cardinals on defense without making sacrifices to infield defense. He would improve the offense and make the team younger (he’s a year younger than Stephen Piscotty). If the Cardinals miss out on Stanton, Yelich is the best hope they have of making the team better now and into the future.