The Miami Marlins may have a stopgap solution for the left field position this season, but that player is simply holding the torch for a red-hot prospect right now. Christian Yelich's .376/.487/.813 start to spring training has garnered a lot of attention and has only intensified the interest in seeing the outfield prospect debut sooner rather than later. While the timetable has always been to debut Yelich full-time in 2014, the Marlins have to see this performance and at least consider an earlier appearance.
So what factors might go into the Marlins promoting Yelich earlier than expected in 2013?
The Stanton Path
Yelich does have one method of getting to the big leagues early, and it is the same method that Giancarlo Stanton once used in his own major league debut. Back in 2010, I figured the Marlins would wait until 2011 to debut Stanton, who was starting Double-A that season. Despite all the clamor to see the team's latest top prospect, I thought that the Fish would be patient, especially since they had players available to them in the outfield that year. But Cameron Maybin once again struggled at the plate and the Marlins were forced to promote Stanton by midseason.
But rest assured, had Maybin been playing decently, the Marlins might have still been forced to find a way to fit Stanton in the lineup, because he was dominating Double-A like few players have done in the past. Just 240 plate appearances into the year, Stanton had already hit 21 home runs and was batting an incredible .313/.442/.729. There was no way the Marlins could justify keeping him down in the minors much longer, especially given who they were playing in the big leagues at the time. Because of his out-of-this-world play, Stanton earned himself that midseason promotion.
Yelich could very well do the same. If he has an amazing start to the season in Double-A, the Marlins would have very little recourse to hold him back this year. Sure, the team signed Juan Pierre to be a starter in left field, but just last season, Pierre signed a deal in order to be a backup. Knowing his role on the roster is more of a leadership position than an integral starting spot on the team, it is believable that he might step aside for the Marlins to promote Yelich and play him full-time.
The Injury Path
The other way that the Marlins could justify bringing up Yelich in the midst of a great campaign in Double-A would be in case of an injury. Justin Ruggiano has proven to be a little injury-prone during his time as a Marlin, as he missed significant time with an abdominal strain and a right shoulder issue last season and eventually did not finish the year on the field. All told, Ruggiano missed about 15 games last year toward the end of the season, and he was only around for about half of the season.
If Ruggiano gets hurt and is scheduled to miss significant playing time, perhaps a fiery-hot Christian Yelich can take over for him. The Marlins would love for Yelich to eventually develop as a center fielder, even if the current thinking is that he will have to move to the corners sooner rather than later. While he has the athleticism to handle any outfield spot, his arm is simply too weak to manage in center field and may be better suited in left, especially if the Fish can develop guys like Jake Marisnick or Marcell Ozuna at the other spot. But a Ruggiano injury for significant time would at least force Yelich into working in center field full-time in the big leagues in a year in which results will not matter.
Has To Be Midseason
Marlins fans may wonder why we are even bothering with Pierre given how well Yelich has played thus far in spring training. Why are the Marlins not just starting this lost season with Yelich as their Opening Day left fielder? The answer to that one is an economic one: team control years. The Marlins can and should wait until midseason so that the team can extract an extra year of team control out of Yelich. Furthermore, they should wait well into June so that the odds of Yelich gaining Super Two arbitration status are low.
Before fans get into an outrage about how the Marlins are manipulating the system for economic gain, consider that most major league teams pull this trick off, particularly if the club has small market payroll concerns. The Washington Nationals did the same with Bryce Harper last season. The Tampa Bay Rays did so with Evan Longoria. Countless other teams that care about their economics and their young prospects almost always manipulate the system to earn that extra year of team control. In fact, this very play may be the reason why Giancarlo Stanton is still a Marlin today, as he otherwise might have earned an arbitration salary this season.
Chances are, however, that Christian Yelich will not make a midseason debut for this team. Much like last time, the odds seem highly against him showing up in the middle of the year because so much has to go right for him to do so. He would have to have a dominant campaign in Double-A, and the Marlins may even need to see Pierre struggle or Ruggiano get hurt in order to justify pushing them aside for Yelich. The extra year incentive only works until around June, so if those occurrences do happen around that time, Yelich may be wearing Marlins colors by then, but it seems unlikely that two or three of these happenstances will occur in 2013.
Instead, expect Yelich to see significant playing time in September, when rosters expand. The Marlins by then should be willing to commit him to a starting spot, especially if he played very well for Double-A Jacksonville. The future of the team is much more likely to be seen at the end of the year than the middle, and that includes the best outfield prospect the Marlins have had since Stanton.