This Trade in History: Christian Yelich to the Brewers
Editor’s note: We’ve had some people ask us if we could look back at major trades in history and see how they matched up with our model. We thought that was a good idea, so this is the first in what will likely be a series.
Also note: Since this site (and our model) didn’t exist when these trades occurred, we may not have access to all the data we currently use, so some of the inputs are not as accurate as they would be today. But let’s try it anyway, just for fun.
On January 25, 2018, the Miami Marlins traded OF Christian Yelich to the Milwaukee Brewers for four prospects: OF Lewis Brinson, OF Monte Harrison, IF Isan Diaz, and P Jordan Yamamoto.
It was big news at the time. Miami had earlier traded Giancarlo Stanton in another blockbuster deal to the Yankees, and were embarking on a rebuild, clearing salary while doing so.
So imagine it’s January, 2018, and we’re looking ahead.
Yelich has four years to go on a very team-friendly contract. Further, he’s just about to enter his age-26 season, so his prime years are still ahead of him. Let’s examine what his estimated numbers are at this point:
Yelich’s projections are very high — he’s coming off a 2017 season where he produced 4.6 fWAR, right after a 2016 season where he produced 5.4 fWAR. And as mentioned above, he’s not even in his prime yet, so it’s likely that the best is yet to come. Essentially, he’s projected to be a 5-WAR player over his next four years, estimated to produce about $40M in value per year, and about $160M in total.
Meanwhile, because Miami locked him into a very team-friendly contract early in his career, he’s set to earn well below that level in salary terms: $7M in 2018, $9.75M in 2019, $12.5M in 2020, and $14M in 2021. At only $43.2M for his next four years, he’s ridiculously underpaid, which is why the model shows a surplus of $117.6M.
We rarely see trades of players with this much surplus value, so this is a unicorn. For a team to acquire him, they’ll have to deliver one heck of a prospect haul.
And that’s what Milwaukee is about to do. Here’s the prospect package they offer, with estimated values (in $Ms) at this time:
|OF Lewis Brinson||61.2|
|OF Monte Harrison||25.1|
|IF Isan Diaz||17.3|
|P Jordan Yamamoto||5.4|
So it’s $117M for $109M.
Note that at this level of total value, the error bars are wide, so being off by about $8M is a minor rounding error of about 7%, well within our typical range.
In other words, it’s about as fair a deal as Miami is going to get — especially since teams rarely part with this much prospect capital, much less in one fell swoop. It’s quite a bold move for Brewers then-GM David Stearns.
In this deal, Brinson is obviously the huge get. At this time, both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus rank him as the 18th-best prospect in baseball. He’s considered to have both a high floor and high ceiling, given his loud tools.
Harrison is no slouch, either. BA ranks him at #75 overall on their Top 100 list; BP is even more optimistic, at #49.
Diaz is in a tier below those two, but BP still ranks him at #85 on their list.
Yamamoto is in the next tier, considered a back-end starter, a role which still has some value.
So that’s quite a haul, right? Miami gets three Top 100 prospects (depending on who’s counting), including one potential superstar, two potential MLB regulars, and a potential rotation innings-eater.
The Brewers get an all-star OF for the next four years, while they move into contention mode. Win/win, right?
So the trade is made. Now let’s see what actually happened.
Christian Yelich, fWAR and value produced (in $Ms, per Fangraphs), 2018-2021:
|Christian Yelich||fWAR||Value||Salary||Surplus Value|
*Normalized to a full year for ease of comparisons.
Yelich, of course, broke out significantly in 2018-19, in his peak-age years of 26-27 (which delighted the Brewers — they knew he had his best years coming at the time of the trade, but that was more than they even imagined). He then collapsed in 2020-21, for reasons that are still unclear. But those first two years were so dominant that they more than made up for it.
And lo and behold, he produced $107.2M in surplus value, which is not far from his estimated surplus of $117M at the time of the trade. He did it rather unconventionally, but he still got there.
Now let’s look at the other side of the trade. Brace yourselves, Marlins fans. This is going to get ugly.
|Lewis Brinson||fWAR||Value||Salary||Surplus Value|
As the lead piece in this deal coming back to Miami, Brinson could not look any worse. Heck, we didn’t even normalize the 2020 results, thinking they probably would have curbed his playing time over a full year (also because that would be adding insult to injury). He’s clearly a bust. And when you compare it to what was expected of him at the time of the trade, it’s even uglier: he was expected to produce $61.2M in surplus value; instead he produced -$26.3M, for a gap of 87.5M. That’s… just mind-boggling.
|Monte Harrison||fWAR||Value||Salary||Surplus Value|
Harrison is a bit earlier along in his career, but it’s not looking good so far. Like Brinson, he has yet to produce any positive WAR, and although we might pro-rate his salary based on MLB playing time, the difference would be minimal. So the value is negative, and Steamer projects him for zero fWAR in 2022 as well. He’s also out of options, which means he’s a possible DFA. He was projected for $25.1M in surplus value at the time of the trade; instead he’s produced $-1.9M so far, for a gap of $27M.
|Isan Diaz||fWAR||Value||Salary||Surplus Value|
Diaz has had a rough go as well. He’s at least shown brief spurts where the Marlins thought he might be turning a corner, but they were short-lived, not enough to dig out of the negative-WAR holes he’s dug. Further, 2B has been a low-value position in the marketplace, so the value gap may even be understated here. At any rate, he was expected to produce $17.3M; instead he’s produced $-18.8M so far, for a gap of $36.1M.
|Jordan Yamamoto||fWAR||Value||Salary||Surplus Value|
This one’s not quite so bad. Ironically, Yamamoto was the first of these four the Marlins officially gave up on, having DFA’d him in 2021 and traded him to the Mets. In any case, he was expected to deliver $5.4M in surplus value; instead he’s brought $2.1M, for a gap of $3.3M. There’s still time for him to get there, but at best it’s a wash, and since he’s not with Miami anymore, they’ll see no benefit from it even if he does.
Now let’s look at the big picture:
|Player||Expected surplus value||Actual surplus value delivered||Gap|
|Player||Expected surplus value||Actual surplus value delivered||Gap|
The Marlins had hoped to receive $109M in surplus value; instead, they got -$44.9M in value, for a whopping gap of $154M.
So they clearly “lost” the trade. By how much?
On a field-value basis, Yelich delivered over $150M. The four prospects the Marlins received delivered (so far) -$37.5M. So on that basis, Milwaukee “won” the trade by over $187M.
But we knew the Marlins were rebuilding, so that’s not quite the right measure.
On a surplus-value basis, which is what most trades are based on, Yelich delivered $107M; the prospects delivered -$44.9M, so Milwaukee “won” the trade by $151.9M.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more lopsided trade in history (although we’ll try).
So what can we learn from this deal? I’m not sure there is anything to learn here. I think it’s mostly a case of bad luck for the Marlins. It’s not often that you see all four prospects in a package deal bust, but it’s within the realm of possibility. Every trade is a gamble on the future, and not all bets pay off.
Could the Marlins have scouted the prospects better? Maybe. But there was industry consensus on Brinson (and the others, for that matter), so it’s not like they were going out on any limbs.
Could they have made a better deal with another team? Sure, but as mentioned above, it’s highly unusual to trade a player like Yelich with over $100M in surplus value, and very few teams have the prospect capital (or the willingness) to go that high. So this may have been their best option by far.
Despite the huge win for Milwaukee here, not all is rosy anymore. Ironically, Miami is arguably in a better spot now on a roster construction basis. They can just write off all four of these guys as losses and start fresh.
But the Brewers made the now-unfortunate-looking decision to extend Yelich after his big 2019 season, after which he promptly turned into a pumpkin. At this point, he’s owed $188.5M through at least the 2028 season, and given his recent struggles and lowered performance projections, his value is now firmly negative, to the tune of -$104.6M by our modeling.
Having a zero on your books is surely better than having a $100M-ish albatross weighing you down, right? So the Marlins might have the last laugh after all.