After a month of bad reviews over the trade of MVP Giancarlo Stanton, the Miami Marlins might be inclined to hang on to their best remaining player, Christian Yelich, who is among MLB’s top 10 left fielders — the spot where he is expected to play in 2018.
Yelich has a team-friendly contract and will make only $7 million this season, so there’s no immediate pressure on Miami to deal him. In a year in which the Marlins will be a recurring punch line, Derek Jeter & Co. could cling to Yelich as a piece of credibility in the way that the San Diego Padres kept Tony Gwynn and Andy Benes through their 1993 fire sale of Gary Sheffield, Fred McGriff and others.
But there’s a strong argument to be made that the Marlins’ best strategy is to deal Yelich, J.T. Realmuto and anybody other veteran of value, because any lasting damage that has been done to the franchise by Jeter’s Project Wolverine teardown could be irreversible — unless the Marlins execute a near-perfect, cost-efficient rebuild. And even then, it may not matter to fans in south Florida.
The truncated history of the Montreal Expos might provide the best comparable to where the Marlins stand now. As the Montreal ownership made decisions about the team’s finances, the Expos’ fan base endured repeated departures of Hall of Fame-caliber players: Gary Carter. Andre Dawson. Tim Raines. Vladimir Guerrero. Pedro Martinez.
Eventually, the fans in Montreal stopped going to the games. After Martinez was traded in the fall of 1997, the Expos’ attendance fell by about 40 percent, to less than one million, and in 2001, Montreal drew just 643,000. The 2004 Expos drew 750,000, with a lot of that accounted for by fans saying goodbye to the team.
Depending on how the Marlins handle their accounting this year, they may become the first MLB team since the ’04 Expos to fail to reach one million in attendance. According to Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald, the Marlins’ through-the-turnstile count last year was closer to 800,000, or about half of their announced attendance of 1.59 million. With the trades of Giancarlo Stanton, Dee Gordon and Marcell Ozuna, the team will likely be terrible in 2018 and for at least three or four years after that, as the front office goes through its rebuilding/tanking. Yelich’s presence in a Marlins uniform isn’t going to fool fans about the product.
What’s most important now for the Marlins’ front office is to collect and develop the right group of prospects, and to time their collective ascension the way that the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros did theirs. It’s a nearly impossible challenge, of course, because the Marlins aren’t embedded in the hearts of their fan base the way the Cubs were, nor do they have the financial potential of the Astros to augment their young players. The truth is that Project Wolverine is the baseball equivalent of a Hail Mary, because even if they get it right, fans in south Florida might not care anymore — after the breakups of the ’97 and ’03 championship teams, the trade of 24-year-old superstar Miguel Cabrera, the swap of Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle even after the opening of the taxpayer-funded ballpark, and now the salary dump of Stanton.
The new ownership group had one chance to make a first impression, one chance to distinguish itself from the distrusted regimes of the past. That has been squandered, and mortal damage may have been done to the market. Considering where the Marlins are today, they might as well push ahead “and rip the whole Band-Aid off,” as a rival executive said. “They might as well take all the pain now.”
So yes, the time is right to trade Yelich. His inclusion in the top-10 list below is based on the input of evaluators, with the counsel of ESPN researchers Mark Simon, Paul Hembekides and Sarah Langs.