There are many things I carry from my years of writing about some pretty terrible Kansas City Royals teams … but one that stands out is the memory of watching young Carlos Beltrán play ball. It wasn’t just that Beltrán was a five-tool joy to watch, it’s that so few people around the country seemed to know it. In the early 2000s, Beltrán was as thrilling as any player in the game. But he didn’t make an All-Star team. He didn’t win any Gold Gloves. He didn’t lead the league in anything except games played in 2002.
You would see Beltrán now and again on some random All-Underrated Team.
But he was generally too underrated even for that.
In 2004, Beltrán was finally traded to Houston and in that playoffs, you might remember, he he crashed into the earth’s atmosphere and became a shooting star. In 12 games against the Braves and Cardinals, Beltrán hit .435 with eight homers, six stolen bases (without getting caught), he scored 21 runs and drove in 14 more. It was a display of all-around baseball magic perhaps unmatched in the game’s postseason history.
And during that series, as America’s leading scholar on Beltránology, reporters often came up to me to ask questions about this guy, where did he come from, how did this happen. My favorite was the reporter who came up and said this: “Yeah, but you didn’t know he was THIS good.”
Only, I did. All of us who watched Beltrán play every day knew.
And I can’t help but believe that Marlins fans, those rare true Marlins fans, must feeling exactly the same way about Christian Yelich. They knew. They had to know.
There prevailing narrative about Yelich is that he was a perfectly fine player with Miami but that his recent otherworldliness with Milwaukee was a huge departure. Who could have predicted that Yelich would become the best player in the National League? Who could have predicted that his last 162 games would look like THIS:
.340/.427/.703, 210 hits, 39 doubles, 7 triples, 57 homers, 137 runs, 144 RBIs, 32 stolen bases while getting caught just four times, 434 total bases …
I mean, that’s ridiculous stuff, it’s muscle Barry Bonds stuff, it’s Stan Musial meets Mickey Mantle stuff, it’s 162 games that would look perfectly at home in Babe Ruth’s late 1920s.
That’s absurd. It’s silliness. If you’re just talking 2019, Yelich is leading the National League in homers AND stolen bases. He has a good shot at a 40-40 season, a long shot at a 50-50 season, and he just seems to be getting better. He’s hitting .42 and slugging .843 this month.
For a long while, all anyone could talk about was Cody Bellinger. And Yelich who was already the league MVP last year, has quietly passed by Cody Bellinger.
It’s easy to say: Nobody knew he was THIS good.
But, like with Beltrán, I suspect that’s wrong. I suspect people who followed closely DID know Yelich was this good. Or anyway that he could be this good.
Yelich, you might recall, was the last move in the Marlins great unraveling. It’s easy to forget this, but Miami actually seemed to be building something in the mid-2010s. They had all these exciting young players. Jose Fernandez was a pitching sensation. Giancarlo Stanton was a Greek God. And then there was Marcell Ozuna and J.T. Realmuto and Dee Gordon and Yelick, among others.
Tragedy struck. In September of 2016, Fernandez died in that terrible boating accident. A team — and a sport — can never fully recover from something like that. But the Marlins still had all of these terrific players, and they were terrific in 2017. Stanton hit 59 homers and won the MVP. Ozuna put up an MVP season himself. Gordon hit .300, stole 60 bases and scored 114 runs.
Right around Independence Day, they got hot. They won 30 of 48 and put themselves in the wildcard chase. But they collapsed in September, at one point losing four out of five games on walk-off hits. And that’s when Derek Jeter and company took over and decided that the team’s best move — perhaps their only move as they were reportedly cash-strapped — was to (in order):
Tear everything down
Maybe get some young talent.
Yelich seemed a decidedly minor part of this plan. He had signed a team-friendly deal and was, as such, not a financial wrecking ball. The team had to trade Dee Gordon who had about $40 million coming his way. So they traded him to Seattle for prospects. The team REALLY had to trade Stanton, who the previous owners had just given the biggest contract in baseball history. So they more or less gave him away to the Yankees, picking up “prospects,” loosely using that word (Jose Devers shows some promise but he’s still only 19 and in high A and the bat still gets knocked out of his hands).
A few days after that, they traded Ozuna for, yes, those ominpresent prospects. Scott Boras probably said it best:
“You’re not a jewelry store that’s coveting your diamonds,” he said. “You become a pawn shop that’s trying to pay the rent of the building.”
And at that point, the Marlins said they were done. They continued to insist that they were not going to trade Yelich. This paragraph appeared in the ESPN story about the Ozuna deal:
“The Marlins' purge won't include outfielder Christian Yelich, who is no longer in play as a trade candidate, a source told ESPN's Jerry Crasnick. After trading Stanton, Gordon and Ozuna, the Marlins can easily afford to keep him. Yelich will make $7 million this season and is owed a guaranteed $44.5 million through 2021.”
You see it, right: They could “easily afford to keep him.”
But, alas, Yelich had only signed that team-friendly deal in the belief that the Marlins would make even a token effort to compete. When he saw his Marlins selling off the team piece by piece in what sure looked like a shabby going out of business sale, he asked to be traded. The Marlins said no. He asked to be traded again. The Marlins said no. That went on for a few weeks.
And then the Marlins, probably realizing that $44.5 million saved was $44.5 million not spent, traded him to Milwaukee for four more of those thar prospects.
It wasn’t HUGE news, not like when Stanton or Ozuna or even Gordon were traded. This is the point, after all. On the national stage, Yelich was best known for NOT being Stanton and NOT being Ozuna. That is to say, he was considered a perfectly fine player, but he was a distant third on the Marlins wish list.
But I think that’s because we didn’t watch the Marlins play.
See, Yelich — like Beltran — was a quietly fantastic player. He never made an All-Star Game. He never did anything mind-blowing like hit 59 homers in a season. All he did was go out there every day with that gorgeous left-handed swing* and hit. All he did was run the bases about as well as anybody. All he did was play Gold Glove defense (he did win a Gold Glove — the first Marlins outfielder to do so).
*When Yelich was 20, Baseball America predicted he would win a batting title. This was repeated by various scouts in various places throughout his younger days in Miami. He has that swing that says “batting title.”
And power? He always hit for more power than his home runs numbers suggested. He hit 21 and 18 home runs in 2016 and 2017, but he hit most of those homers on the road. Marlins Park can be a brutal home run park.
Anyway, Yelich was one of those rare players who stealthily did everything well. Sometimes he would do something spectacular like get eight hits in a row. But mostly he did those quiet things that bring hardcore baseball fans joy. He took the extra base. He chased down the ball in the gap. He lined a double the other way.
I imagine only a few people when he was traded, only those die-hard Marlins fans who feel so deeply unappreciated and unnoticed, understood what had really just happened.
And then America found out. Yelich went to Milwaukee and all the things happened. The much-predicted batting title came true. After moving into a new hitter-friendly park, his home run totals soared (he has hit 21 of his 29 home runs this year in Milwaukee). His exquisite baserunning and excellent defense was finally noticed.
And, voila, just like that, he became the best player in the National League.
Only, it wasn’t JUST LIKE THAT. Marlins fans knew. Just like Royals fans knew about Beltrán.
Now, let’s say something else: This isn’t to say the Marlins got fleeced on that deal. All things considered, the Yelich deal looks like the best one they made during the fire sale. Yes, the player that everyone thought was the key to the deal — an ultra-promising outfielder prospect named Lewis Brinson — has not yet shown any ability to hit big-league pitching.
But the pitcher they got in the deal, Jordan Yamamoto, has made three big league starts and has given up a total of two runs. And the Marlins picked up a couple of 23-year-old players who are in Class AAA and they are looking GOOD (outfielder Monte Harrison) and VERY GOOD (shortstop Isan Diaz).
So, if you are one of those die-hard Marlins fans, there’s some hope.
But, more, there’s pain. Players like Christian Yelich come along to your team … maybe, if you’re lucky, once or twice per generation. Assuming health, I suspect Yelich will finish his career as the best of the four players the Marlins dealt, better even than Stanton. Assuming health, I believe 15 or 20 years hence, Yelich will be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Yes, I really believe that.
And the Marlins traded him because they gave up on the present.
It stinks when your team gives up on the present. It stinks to watch your favorite player go somewhere else and everyone discovers how good he is … and you had known all along.