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On The Astros: A Yelich-us For The Rest Of Us?

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A fan’s amateur look at the feasibility and machinations of a potential Christian Yelich trade for the Astros

Is a Christian Yelich trade a pipe dream for the Astros?

I’m sorry for the headline. Full disclosure: I sought to lure you here with a rage click (You: “I AM SO TIRED OF PEOPLE RIPPING OFF SEINFELD ARGH$#@%#$^” *click link*) and then trap you into staying with witticisms and pointed snark. How am I doing?

Wait...come back...

For everybody else, let’s discuss whether a trade for Miami Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich is both possible, and desirable...and then let’s talk about how we might get from here to there reasonably.

Is It Possible?

Well...yeah. It is. That’s why we’re here.

Okay, okay, a deeper dive.

The Marlins, as everybody knows by now, were purchased by a new ownership group involving Derek Jeter for north of a billion dollars recently. As many franchises have done when ownership changes, the Marlins have embarked on a slash and burn rebuild in a big way, shipping out first Dee Gordon (to the Seattle Mariners) and now Giancarlo Stanton to the New York Yankees. Reports have varied some on the end goal payroll that Marlins management is looking to hit, but most articles out there refer back to this report by Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald that cites Derek Jeter and Bruce Sherman (one of Jeter’s lesser-known Co-Owners of the franchise) about ownership wishing to cut payroll down to a maximum of $90 million for 2018. That means that, after trading Stanton and Gordon, the Marlins $110 million payroll still needs to be slashed by at least $20 million (though fielding a payroll below $90 million would be even better-received, it is believed) in order to make the ownership group feel good about their fiscal footing.

I’m not here to judge, and you shouldn’t be either, fellow Astros fans - we just endured something similar and have seen how well it can work when properly implemented.

Bottom line, the Marlins want to slash payroll still - even though they’ve already reduced it by approximately $25 million (Starlin Castro is set to make $10.8 million in 2018, which approximately offsets the $10.5 million saved by trading Gordon) for next season.

Cutting to the quick: Wei-Yin Chen has an absolutely abhorrent contract. And if the Marlins will eat the signing bonus portion of his contract, I see no reason why the Astros shouldn’t accept that horrendous contract along with Christian Yelich.

This kind of trade isn’t new, and this exact scenario has been bandied about on this site both by myself and others in recent days. I want to take a few minutes and explain why I think it’s a pretty smart avenue for the Astros to pursue...and how it also aligns with the stated wishes of Marlins ownership with regard to cost-cutting.

............................................................Wei-Yin Chen?

Yeah, I know. His contract is really, really bad. Here’s a link to it on spotrac that explains it all, including his vesting option (which almost definitely would not activate) and his yearly (due by June 30) signing bonus numbers that I want the Marlins to eat.

Basically, he’s guaranteed $52 million through 2020, since his vesting option will almost assuredly not trigger for 2021. FanGraphs’ contract estimator estimates his worth (based on 2018 Steamer projections) at between $17.7 million (at $8 million/WAR) and $21.6 million ($10 million/WAR) over that timeframe, leaving between $30.4 and $34.3 million on the table in sunk, negative value for the contract. These are, of course, not ideal facts about the potential acquisition, and you would be right to recoil from this idea. It’s a tough sell, even for me...a big part of the power of this franchise right now is having so much financial flexibility while having roughly $244 million MORE dollars’ worth of value in talent than the next best team in baseball in terms of future outlook, the Indians, based on Neifi analytics projections as reported in this piece from the Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh back on November 2nd. However, the rest of the package in this trade makes up for this particularly auspicious start to the proposal.

As for Chen’s actual baseball ability, he’s been hampered by a balky elbow over the last two seasons that has limited him on the field to 22 games (all starts) in 2016 and just nine games in 2017, the final four of which (all in September) came in relief.

Nothing is going to make this vastly overpaid, injury-prone 32-year-old pitcher a desirable addition to the team in vacuum. But there are some reasons to think that perhaps adding Chen wouldn’t be the unmitigated disaster it might appear to be on the surface.

First of all, the Astros have a lot of payroll flexibility and a nearly-impossibly bright future (Chris put together some numbers about a week ago in examining the possibility of a Giancarlo Stanton trade - Reader’s Digest: the Astros can afford to do most anything that they really want to do, especially between now and 2020...including eating a horrendous contract or even two, if they want) with which to play.

Second of all, when Chen is healthy he might actually check off a perceived need for the Astros: left-handed reliever. Chen has had his fastball, slider, and change up all grade out reasonably well over the years in pitch values. A full time transition to the pen (not to mention the help of Brent Strom and one of the best analytics departments in the big leagues) would allow him to drop the less effective pitches (curve ball and sinker in particular) and focus on his three best pitches, in addition to perhaps putting less stress on his arm and allowing him to mitigate some of the injury risk. Additionally, those three pitches have all trended up in his brief relief career so far in regards to their pitch value numbers when he starts - as is so often true with starters, his best stuff plays up a little in relief.

Now, again, I’m not trying to sell you on Wei-Yin Chen being a good pitcher with surplus value with the Astros. I’m trying to sell you on a Francisco Liriano-style reclamation project for the bullpen (who would also, incidentally, be available in mop-up duties or even in spot start duties, as another depth arm) who would boast significantly better results versus left-handed batters in his career and have the added roster management bonus of being able to likely be counted on to be shuffled on and off the disabled list throughout each of his remaining seasons with the team - not normally a plus, but it means that the team can stash him on the disabled list if his roster spot is needed for someone else for a stretch of time.

The fact that there could conceivably be some utility for him here makes his inclusion in this trade slightly more palatable for me, and allows me to remain excited for the main course.

Christian Yelich

A frequent response when I’ve been discussing Yelich with fellow Astros fans the last couple of days has been for others to tell me “Man, I just don’t love Yelich as much as you do.”

To which my response would be...why?

Christian Yelich has, since his first full season in 2014, been worth more fWAR than all but 26 Major League Baseball position players. Of those 26, Jose Altuve is the only current Astro. His 15.9 fWAR in that time frame is 9th among all outfielders. Here are the outfielders ahead of him on the list in that span:

fWAR Leaders - All Qualified MLB Outfielders, Since 2014

Name BB% K% wOBA wRC+ BsR fWAR
Name BB% K% wOBA wRC+ BsR fWAR
Mike Trout 15.0% 22.1% .417 171 23.1 32.9
Mookie Betts 8.4% 11.8% .357 122 29.9 20.0
Bryce Harper 15.6% 20.8% .394 148 4.3 19.1
Giancarlo Stanton 12.4% 26.8% .391 149 -1.0 19.0
Lorenzo Cain 6.7% 17.8% .342 114 16.1 17.9
Andrew McCutchen 12.2% 19.1% .370 135 -1.2 16.8
Nelson Cruz 9.3% 22.8% .383 147 -14.7 16.5
Kevin Kiermaier 6.8% 19.6% .324 106 17.6 16.1
Christian Yelich 10.6% 20.2% .350 121 15.0 15.9
Charlie Blackmon 6.9% 16.5% .374 119 12.0 14.8
Yoenis Cespedes 6.6% 20.0% .356 127 4.5 14.8
George Springer 11.1% 23.6% .361 132 4.2 14.6
J.D. Martinez 8.6% 26.1% .392 148 -11.4 14.6
Justin Upton 10.0% 27.3% .353 123 11.1 13.8
Jason Heyward 9.3% 14.9% .318 98 11.6 13.7
Results sorted by fWAR Stats courtesy of FanGraphs

In reviewing this table, it seems pretty clear to me that Christian is the best left fielder in baseball. In examining his year to year stats, he also appears to be a model of consistency. He has never posted below a 115 wRC+ or a .341 wOBA in any of his five MLB seasons so far, and he’s posted exactly 4.5 fWAR in three of his four full seasons - with the outlier being a 2015 season in which he was worth 2.4 fWAR in just 126 games. That total pro-rates to roughly 2.9 fWAR in 152 games, which is his average number of games played in his other three full seasons.

One also might notice that his BsR (base running value, per FanGraphs) is very high, at 18.5 total for his career. He posted a 6.8 BsR in 2017. For comparison, Jose Altuve has been playing two-plus years longer than Yelich and has stolen 231 bases (BsR is about a lot more than stolen bases, for those unaware) and his career BsR (a cumulative statistic, like WAR) is 6.0. In 2017, Jose Altuve was worth 4.0 BsR. Jose Altuve was the very best base runner on the 2017 Astros - it is not as oft-discussed as other aspects of the team, but base running is a weakness of the team in general, and Yelich is an excellent base runner.

But wait, there’s more!

The Astros were not a great defensive team in 2017 - in fact, by most measures, the Astros ranged from “meh” defensively as a team to “abject disaster”, depending on position and which set of stats one uses. Yelich himself has drawn mixed statistical reviews for his defense, but his ratings in left field have generally been good, and that’s with playing 81 games in the cavernous left field in Miami. A fast runner with good instincts, he can cover quite a bit of ground in left field (especially in 81 games at Minute Maid Park) and really boost the Astros’ overall outfield defense, which struggled to convert batted balls into outs compared to other elite baseball teams last season, and over the past three seasons combined.

Basically, he’s a top flight left-fielder in all facets of the game, and he’s a left-handed bat who only just turned 26 as he enters his prime years.

Oh...and it’s likely he would fit in well in the clubhouse, as he and Jake Marisnick have been close friends for years.

Imagine Marisnick, George Springer, and Christian Yelich cutting up together. Makes you want to go buy the team a third T-Rex suit, doesn’t it?

Back to business for a few more minutes. Per Spotrac, Yelich is signed to an incredibly team-friendly deal:

2018: $7 million
2019: $9.75 million
2020: $12.5 million
2021: $14 million
2022: $15 million (club option, $1.25 million buyout)

That puts Yelich’s earnings over the life of the contract at $58.25 million through his age-thirty season in 2022. Meanwhile, if you use the same FanGraphs contract estimator page that we used earlier for Wei-Yin Chen’s future contract worth, at $8 mil/WAR, the 2018 Steamer projections build a profile on Yelich that shows his value at approximately $190.3 million through 2022. Back out the $58.25 million hes getting paid, and that leaves $132.05 in surplus value in his deal at $8 mil/WAR. Of course, if you use $10 mil/WAR you come up to a grand total of $179.65 mil in surplus value.

That’s quite a bit of surplus value, and that’s why tweets like this one from Ken Rosenthal exist:

The point made there is extremely reasonable and predictable - Christian Yelich is a centerpiece player for most organizations, and he has youth and massive surplus value on his side.

A couple of things, though. First, if you assume $10 mil/WAR, that $179.65 million surplus dollar amount has to get adjusted to $149.25 million. But if you follow the FanGraphs $8 mil/WAR projection system, that shows a total surplus value (for Yelich and Chen together) of $93.75 mil, and that number starts to look a lot closer to what one might hope for in an opportunistic trade.

It’s also true that the Marlins could conceivably move other pieces (starting with Marcell Ozuna, whom the Cardinals are known to covet) including Starlin Castro and Martin Prado and likely achieve the cost-cutting (remember: they’re assiduously trying to get down at least to $90 million before opening day, if not lower) goals piecemeal, without getting much back in the way of talent. Or, they could trade off those other fairly costly pieces, and then wait for a truly great, rich package for Yelich. That too would be a reasonable course of action.

But the only way they’re moving that Wei-Yin Chen contract, in my estimation, is by attaching it to a contract as desirable as Yelich’s. And since the Marlins don’t have any other contracts beyond league-minimum (so, exclude JT Realmuto) that would command the kind of attention required to justify attaching $52 million ($30 million or so of which is plain dead weight) worth of Wei-Yin Chen, I think the Marlins’ best chance to shed that awful contract is to package Yelich with it and take a good (but not top-shelf) prospect haul back in return.

Which brings us to the home stretch.

What’s the offer?

I’m glad you asked.

Once we’ve established that the complete package of Christian Yelich and Wei-Yin Chen hold roughly $180-$200 million (depending on your $/WAR valuation - I used $10 mil/WAR because it’s the highest amount the fangraphs calculator allows, and the closest available number to the numbers posited by MLBTR’s Matt Swartz (on FanGraphs) in July of this year) combined in surplus value, one can start to understand why some Astros fans (especially here in this hyper-intelligent community) fear that this trade acquisition would absolutely require at least one of Kyle Tucker or Forrest Whitley...if not both.

I don’t think it would, though. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if I were Jeff Luhnow and either of those two names came up in these conversations, I’d politely but firmly insist that they aren’t available once, and if the Marlins insisted on their inclusion, I’d politely end the phone call. There isn’t a realistic scenario that exists where I’d consider moving Kyle Tucker or Whitley for Yelich - the point of this trade is to strike opportunistically and net a top shelf player for a return that would look to be below market value in a vacuum but which actually helps the Marlins achieve their primary goal of slashing payroll down to about the $90 million mark for 2018. If the Marlins are serious about slashing that payroll (and who’s to say they’re not, with their own statements and actions as corroborating evidence thus far this offseason?) and wish to move Chen’s contract in particular, I believe the Astros can and should offer a similar contract to the one I’m about to propose.

Some of the players could conceivably change, and perhaps I could even be talked into adding someone like flame-throwing Hector Perez to the below deal, but this would be my firm starting point, and I would (again) avoid inclusion of Tucker or Whitley. I’d probably also avoid inclusion of Francis Martes or J.B. Bukauskas, but depending on how the overall package shook out, even they might be discussable.

The main requirement here is speed. The Marlins are motivated to slash payroll and will want to do so fairly quickly, and many teams will be checking in on both Ozuna and Yelich and perhaps Castro and even Prado. If the Astros want to make the deal happen, they will need to strike as quickly as possible, before the Marlins make other trades to accomplish their fiscal goals.

Okay. If you’re still with me to this point, God bless your heart, and thank you. This was a labor of love. Looking forward to debating it.

Here’s the official offer, as I would present it. The Marlins would get a left field replacement for Yelich, a second base replacement for Dee Gordon, and two up and coming Cuban-born prospects who both had breakout seasons in 2017 and jumped into the Astros’ top ten prospect lists in some estimations. I still can’t decide if I offer Hector Perez or not, but I’d probably at least consider it.

MIA sends:

LF Christian Yelich
LHP Wei-Yin Chen
$7.8 million (to cover Chen’s annual $2.6 million signing bonus)

HOU sends:

LF Derek Fisher
RHP Rogelio Armenteros
1B Yordan Alvarez
2B Tony Kemp