Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich won the NL MVP, and St. Louis Cardinals fans can’t help but think that the team ended up with the short end of the stick of the Miami Marlins fire sale. Let’s take a trip back to last offseason and beyond, and remember how this all unfolded.
When the St. Louis Cardinals acquired Marcell Ozuna in 2017, many fans felt it was simply a consolation prize in the Giancarlo Stanton race. To make matters worse, the Milwaukee Brewers of all teams was able to acquire Christian Yelich, who fans saw as a better value in every way over Ozuna.
But how could a team with MVP caliber outfielders struggle so mightily, not only as a team, but in attendance numbers as well? Well, while they had finished near the bottom in attendance for awhile, there was hope and potential in the Marlins roster. Unfortunately, we can pinpoint the exact moment when that hope was snuffed out: the early morning of September 25, 2016.
Yes, that is when former Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez passed away in a boating accident. It was a massive shock to the organization, and one that still reverberates through the entire fabric of the organization today. Even Yelich himself publicly noted that he and other Marlins felt that Fernandez’s death was a turning point in the franchise’s history.
But it goes so much more than losing a good player. Fernandez was a symbol of hope for both the community and the organization, and his emotion and energy galvanized the Marlins. It may not have resulted in immediate results, but there was always hope. Hope for a brighter future, hope for the great things to come, hope that the boy that Miami raised would soon deliver them to greatness.
It wasn’t on Stanton, it wasn’t on Yelich. No, Miami pinned its dreams on Fernandez’s shoulders.
The Fallout of Tragedy
We shift a barren landscape, both dark and gloomy. The silence is so heavy, so absolute, that you could hear your own heartbeat if you were there. Painstakingly crafted displays litter the stadium, but they are just as cheap as they are superficial. Any joy and excitement to come from the bright colors is drained by a numbing sense of emptiness. Occasionally, you can hear the echos that could be made out as cheering if you listen close enough, but there’s not a soul is in sight.
This is Marlins Park in 2017, or at least that’s how Marlins ownership saw it. The Marlins were last in the NL in attendance, but they still finished above teams like the Athletics, White Sox, and the cross town Rays in home attendance and attendance percentage. However, being last in the NL in attendance for the fifth straight season, a higher payroll, and an ownership still rocked by Fernandez’s death made this particular season the breaking point for the Marlins.
Jeffrey Loria, the owner of the Marlins at the time, who was long maligned by fans, decided to sell the team to an investment group that featured former Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. With a floundering pitching staff, huge payroll, and low returns, the group decided they needed to drastically cut costs.
On December 9 of that year, the St. Louis Cardinals, San Francisco Giants, and New York Yankees each had a deal in place with the Marlins to acquire Stanton. However, it was the Yankees that won out, acquiring Stanton (and $30M) for Starlin Castro, Jorge Guzman, and Jose Devers.
A Reaction to Fan Frustration?
This was a culmination of months worth of speculation and hope for St. Louis Cardinals fans, but it was snuffed out by the man himself, as Stanton declined to waive his no trade clause to come play with the Cardinals. On top of that, the lopsidedness of the talent in the deal only made fans even more frustrated.
Unlike the Marlins, the St. Louis Cardinals are very much used to success. Before missing the postseason in 2016 and 2017, they hadn’t missed the playoffs in consecutive years since ’07-’08. They have been top 5 in the National League in attendance since 2005, and are considered some of the best and most loyal fans in baseball.
But missing out on Stanton following two years of uncharacteristic struggles and months of bubbling anticipation that has never been felt by St. Louis Cardinals fans made the let down of losing out all that much more harsh. and fans expressed that frustration across a variety of channels, and at least a tiny bit of it was surely seen by the Cardinals front office.
St. Louis Cardinals management was also put in a unique position; they had never shown that they were willing to spend anywhere near the amount of money it would have required to acquire Stanton before, so there was suddenly an expectation among fans that this was finally the year that Bill DeWitt and the Cardinals would really put their money where their mouths were.
In a way, it happened. Just four days after Stanton was traded to the Yankees, the St. Louis Cardinals acquired Ozuna from the Marlins for Magneuris Sierra, Sandy Alcantara, Zac Gallen, and Daniel Castano. This package looks far more appealing than the one sent for Stanton, and it was to acquire a player nowhere near his caliber.
Originally, a majority of people were happy with the trade. There was reason to be optimistic too. At 27, Ozuna was coming off his best season, slashing .312/.376/.548 and added an impressive 37 home runs and 124 RBI’s along with it. He also improved drastically in the field, picking up a Gold Glove after a season where he registered a negative Baseball Reference dWAR.
There were skeptics though. Some fans were much higher on Yelich than Ozuna, and were disappointed when the St. Louis Cardinals didn’t wait it out and try and trade for him. However, taking a deeper look, this is a bit unreasonable.
Yelich and Ozuna: Two Different Cases
We have every reason to assume that Yelich was unavailable when the Ozuna trade went down for several reasons. The first and most explicit one is that the Marlins stated the Yelich was not in play at the time of the Ozuna deal. While they didn’t say it outright before, Ozuna and Yelich were clearly valued much differently by the Marlins.
A report came out in the Miami Herald as early as October 2015 that there was a clear split about Ozuna within the front office. Contrast that with Yelich, who was considered untouchable along with Stanton at that year’s trade deadline, and had no visible rift with the team. With all of this in play, there’s no doubt the St. Louis Cardinals would have to have given up much more to acquire Yelich even if he was available at all.
A part of the reason he did become available happened internally. Reports came out in days following the Ozuna trade that the remaining stars on the team were unhappy, and only some time after that did the Marlins new ownership become more open minded about sending Yelich elsewhere.
Would Yelich have become unhappy if it was just Stanton and Dee Gordon traded? Gordon was traded before Stanton, so it is possible. But Yelich being unhappy didn’t come out until several days after the Ozuna trade, so there is a likely chance that it was Ozuna’s trade that was the final straw for Yelich.
Would the St. Louis Cardinals have traded for Ozuna if they had in fact squeezed out a few more games and made the playoffs in 2017? Fan pressure wouldn’t have been as high, but the fact that the Cardinals were struggling and the team was willing to pay about 4 times more than they had ever commit to a player before would have remained.
Hindsight and Forgiving the Front Office
They say hindsight is always 20/20, and there’s not many people that can claim that they picked Yelich to win the 2018 NL MVP when the season started. You could say that the front office should have been more patient, or that the risk Ozuna would regress was too great.
But there is no way that Cardinals fans would have said that in the moment, nor should we have expected them to. For better or for worse, it feels like Marcel Ozuna was destined to join the St. Louis Cardinals.
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So why do I bring up all of this history about both the Marlins and Cardinals? Well, I did it to illustrate how being frustrated about Christian Yelich is understandable, but unfounded. Additionally, it’s to show the contrast between a successful team who’s hit a few bad years and an unsuccessful team stuck in a rut.
As frustrating as they may be at time, the St. Louis Cardinals franchise is one of the most successful franchises in any sport. The team has been in the playoffs 12 times and won 2 World Series titles since 2000. They have remained consistently competitive throughout that time, finishing with less than 80 wins just once in that span.
While you might not agree with the moves or the conservative approach, there’s no question the front office has played it’s part in keeping the St. Louis Cardinals competitive.
So my fellow St. Louis Cardinals fans, let us remember that as frustrating as thing seem now, especially with Christian Yelich winning an MVP with the Brewers, teams like the Miami Marlins teach us that for the most part, things can always be worse.