In November, sports agent Joe Longo got a late-night phone call that caught him by surprise. It was from Marlins president of baseball operations Michael Hill, who indicated the team’s interest in signing one of the agent’s clients, outfielder Christian Yelich, to a long-term contract.
After thanking Hill, Longo put down the phone and thought it couldn’t possibly happen. Not the Marlins. Not the team that for so long was better known for dealing young stars once their salary figures began to trickle leftward on the ledger sheet.
“I wasn’t optimistic that it was going to get done at all,” Longo said.
“You just look at the past. They’ve never done something like this before. I just thought [Yelich] had one year of service time and the Marlins operating, up until this year, as a small-market team, I just didn’t see where this was going to go.”
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But Sunday morning, following a ceremony at which the Marlins formally announced the signing of Yelich to a long-term deal that will pay him close to $50 million over the coming seven years, Longo’s initial reservations had changed — as had everyone else who had snickered about the Marlins for years.
“It sounds like history is changing,” Longo said as Yelich, 23, posed for photographs with his mother and team executives. “In November, I never would have imagined this.”
The Yelich deal follows on the heels of the mammoth $325 million contract the Marlins gave to Giancarlo Stanton, thus locking up two-thirds of an outfield that may rank as the best in the majors for years to come.
“It is uncharted waters, I guess, for this organization,” Yelich said. “I love the direction that we’re headed. I think we’re going to be really good this year and many years into the future.”
The contract breaks down for Yelich this way: $570,000 this season, $1 million in 2016, $3.5 million in 2017, $7 million in 2018, $9.75 million in 2019, $12.5 million in 2020 and $14 million in 2021. The contract also includes a team option for 2022 of $15 million with a $1.25 million buyout.
The Marlins are convinced Yelich will be worth every penny.
“He reminds me a lot of a young Don Mattingly,” said Marlins general manager Dan Jennings. “A tremendous hitter who’s only going to get better as he learns the league and the pitchers.”
In his first full season with the Marlins last year, one in which he was the Marlins’ leadoff hitter, Yelich finished with a .284 average, nine home runs and 21 stolen bases. He also won the Gold Glove Award for his outfield defense.
The Marlins believe he’ll gradually evolve into a middle-of-the-order hitter (he’ll likely be batting second this season) as his power develops. They can now be certain he’ll continue his growth in a Miami uniform.
Longo said that after the Marlins’ initial run at a long-term deal for Yelich failed to gain any traction, talks intensified in February.
Beyond the haggling over years and dollars, Longo said there was one other important element that made Yelich more agreeable to striking a deal: the signing of Stanton.
Not only do Yelich and Stanton play in the same outfield, they’re both from southern California. Longo said that when Hill reached out to gauge interest in a Yelich deal, it was before Stanton had finalized his with the Marlins.
Longo said Yelich told him: “Let’s see what they do with Stanton.”
“I think for him, it was important to have Stanton around,” Longo said.
“I think when Stanton got done, I think Yelich wanted to be around this organization for a while.”
After the first big domino fell, in other words, the second soon followed.
“He tells me it’s different now,” Longo said of Yelich’s perception of the Marlins. “He keeps saying that, ‘It’s different now.’ I think the Stanton signing kind of set the tone for that. It certainly set the tone for us.”
The Marlins have also made long-term proposals to two other prominent members of their young corps, pitcher Jose Fernandez and center fielder Marcell Ozuna. Both players are represented by Scott Boras, and neither offer advanced to fruition. Boras usually prefers his players to play the open market in free agency.
“It depends,” Fernandez said when asked what his thoughts were about inking a long-term deal like Stanton and Yelich have done. “There’s a bunch of things that go into it. There’s family. There’s money obviously. There’s teammates. Just a lot of things. It’s not just one thing.”
Fernandez is working his way back from Tommy John surgery and said his focus now is “coming back healthy and helping this team making it to the playoffs and winning the World Series.”
But Fernandez applauded the signings of his two teammates.
“I think the team is proving to fans that they want to win, and I think that’s what they want in Miami,” he said. “It’s really nice to see that happen.”
It’s never happened like this before with the Marlins. They made a major splash with free agent signings a few years ago, and it turned into a debacle when the roster was shredded after a poor season on the field.
To lock up two major cornerstones in Yelich and Stanton is unprecedented.
“It’s something special here,” Yelich said at Sunday’s ceremony. “It’s special for everybody.”