Don’t let anyone tell you the Phillies haven’t been busy so far this off-season. Compared to the rest of the league, the Phils have been buzzing with activity.
As of this writing, the signing of Carlos Santana to a three-year, $60 million was still the largest free agent contract signed by any team so far this winter, and when you add in the deals signed by relievers Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter, the Phillies have signed three of the top 11 free agent contracts so far.
That being said, if the Phils are serious about being wild card contenders in 2017 (and who knows if they really are), they’re probably not done.
Enter Derek Jeter and Project Wolverine. After trading Giancarlo Stanton to the Yankees, Dee Gordon to the Mariners and Marcell Ozuna to the Cardinals, their star center fielder, Christian Yelich is suddenly standing around wondering what the hell just happened. And, reports indicate he’s not happy and wants out of Miami.
The Phillies are one team that have spoken to Marlins about Yelich and have a wealth of intriguing prospects that could interest MIA.— clarkspencer (@clarkspencer) December 29, 2017
Of course, there’s the little fact that the Phillies also have four outfielders for three spots at the moment, Rhys Hoskins, Nick Williams, Odubel Herrera and Aaron Altherr. One would assume that if the Phils and Marlins did get together on a Yelich deal, one or two of those guys would be on the way out, and there would likely be some prospects moving, too.
But would Yelich be an upgrade over what the Phillies already have? In some ways yes, and in some ways, not really.
Above are the 2017 stats of the Phils’ four outfielders and Yelich and, as you can see, Yelich’s fWAR was far and away better than anyone else’s. Aside from Hoskins, he has the best on-base percentage of the group, he scored 100 runs last season, and his 11.5% walk rate was better than Herrera’s (5.5%), Williams’ (5.8%) and Altherr’s (7.8%). Only Hoskins’ was better (17.5%) and he only played 50 games. Yelich also strikes out at a lesser rate than the Phils’ four outfielders, just 19.7% of the time. That’s compared to Hoskins (21.7%), Herrera (22.4%), Altherr (25.2%) and Williams (28.3%).
Of course, the sample sizes for Williams, Altherr and Hoskins are small, compared to the four full seasons Yelich has been a starter. There are still question marks as just to how good Williams is going to be. Can a player with a 5.8% walk rate and a 28.3% strikeout rate be a successful offensive player? Will Williams get better in those areas? Will he hit for more power?
How good is Altherr? Can he stay healthy for a full season and, if he can, can he be a 30-homer guy? And what about Herrera? He has been a streaky player in his first three seasons, prone to prolonged slumps and prolonged periods of productivity. He hit 42 doubles last season and, since the start of 2015, has been worth 10.5 fWAR, 8th-most among center fielders, just behind Yelich’s 11.4.
It would seem that Hoskins, Williams and Altherr all have more power potential than Yelich, although that could change if Yelich adjusts his approach at the plate. He had just 18 bombs in 2017, a season that saw homers hit at a record level across baseball. Even among center fielders, a position that traditionally doesn’t require much power from its inhabitants, his 18 dingers ranked ninth out of 18 qualified players.
But he did routinely hit the ball hard last season, with an average exit velocity off the bat of 90.4 miles per hour, according to StatCast, tied for 29th in baseball among the 540 hitters and pitchers who came to the plate in 2017. However, he "barreled" up a baseball in just 4.7% of his plate appearances last year, tied for 181st (according to StatCast, a "barrel" is anytime a player hits the ball in such a way that the exit velocity and the launch angle makes it most likely a ball will leave the yard).
That’s because Yelich is a ground ball machine, hitting a grounder 55.4% of the time, slightly less than his career mark of 59.1%, but that was still the sixth-highest rate among qualified hitters. Because of his speed and contact rate, he's always posted a high batting average on balls in play (BABIP), with last year's .336 BABIP the lowest of his career but still much higher than the league average of .298.
If Yelich does begin to increase his launch angle, he could be a 20-25 homer hitter, especially at Citizens Bank Park, which according to Park Factors was the best home run park in the Majors last year.
Yelich also has a contract that MLB general managers salivate over, under team control through 2022 at $58.25 million, taking him through his age-30 season. He’ll be just 26 years old next year, and has already proven to be someone who can work the strike zone and get on base, qualities we know the Phillies adore.
But the Phillies may not even need an upgrade in the outfield. In the second half, after guys like Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders were shipped out and Williams and Hoskins were added to the fold, the Phils’ outfield posted an fWAR of 5.1, 5th-best in baseball. Their 180 RBIs were tops in the Majors after the All-Star break, their .350 OBP was 6th, their .484 slugging percentage was 4th, and their wRC+ of 111 was 5th.
Do the Phillies need Yelich? Not really. The outfield did quite well late in the season with the crew they already have. But would swapping Williams, Altherr or Herrera out in place of Yelich make them better? Absolutely.
But at what cost? What other pieces would the Phils have to give up in order to get him, and would that preclude them from using their trade chips to improve the starting rotation?
Christian Yelich is a really good baseball player. He does all the things GM Matt Klentak wants his players to do, and is a much surer thing than Williams or Altherr at this stage of their careers. He provides a higher floor for the Phils’ offense, if not a higher ceiling.
It will all come down to whether the cost in acquiring him would be worth the improvement he would provide to the team, and I’m not sure Yelich provides enough of a boost to counteract the price it would cost in prospects to land him.