Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
The Miami Marlins are expected to send top prospect Christian Yelich down to minor league camp in a few days, despite his overwhelmingly strong spring training performance. Is that a good idea? How much could Yelich contribute in a full 2013 season?
The Miami Marlins' minor league camp has opened up, and a number of players currently working in the major league camp who do not fit into the team's immediate 2013 plans are expected to head over there in the coming days. One of the names leaving the major league camp that may disappoint fans is top prospect Christian Yelich, who has had a red-hot spring training but is still destined to the start the 2013 year in Double-A Jacksonville. One of those disappointed fans is loyal Fish Stripes reader miamiandy, who mentioned this much in yesterday's Yelich article.
Joe Frisaro of MLB.com also asks this question, but comes up with an ultimately different answer.
Let's leave aside the contract comparison to Evan Longoria, as no elite prospect will ever sign a deal that friendly ever again*. The topic at hand is whether the Marlins, as miamiandy is suggesting, are really losing a lot in terms of either fan interest or, at the very least, performance by leaving Christian Yelich in the minors. Is Yelich already one of the Marlins' best players, and would he make a difference in 2013?
To figure out that question, we will do the same as we did for each of the team's other players: we will make a projection.
The Marlins know Yelich's general strengths and weaknesses. In fact, we know them as well, and made them evident in our top prospects piece by Eric Weston.
The real attraction to Yelich has always been his smooth left-handed swing. He is an excellent pure hitter, and should have no trouble batting .300 in the majors. His swing is built to the drive the ball to the outfield, which could lead to as many as 35 doubles per season. Home run power comes less naturally to Yelich, although he should hit more than enough to remain a productive batter. His double digit walk rates demonstrate an advanced plate approach that will give him excellent on-base averages.
Power is his primary concern, and while the expectation is that it will continue to develop (Yelich posted a career-best .189 ISO in 2012 in his toughest hitting environment), it is unlikely to be ready at the moment. Meanwhile, his plate approach is strong, though not as highly advanced as guys like Logan Morrison or Gaby Sanchez were during the latter stages of their minor league time. The biggest positive, rather, is that Yelich is supposedly a pure hitter with a plus-plus hit tool thanks to a smooth, flawless swing.
For a prospect maven like Eric or the rest of the gang at Fish Stripes, those are things that fans can dream on. But in terms of current performance, I am not sure that 41 spring training plate appearances, even if they were elite in production, can change the projection for a season. Yelich may project as a great player two or three years down the line, and he should be major league ready by next season or even by the middle of this year, but expecting an impact right now may not be prudent.
Check out Yelich's various projections.
Ignore the playing time numbers and just look at the slash lines. You are looking at a player who could be a potentially viable left or center fielder this season if he played the full year, just as miamiandy put it. He could range anywhere from ten runs worse than average to league average at the plate, and we know that he is a good defender in left field and passable in center field.
So let's compare him to our current left fielder, Juan PIerre, Yesterday, we projected Pierre as a one-win player in 630 plate appearances. Let's give Yelich the same playing time in left field and see what these systems project him at. Taking a weighted average and weighing systems like PECOTA and ZiPS for using minor league data higher than Steamer, which does not use translated minor league numbers, gives me an average wOBA of .308 for 2013. Let's tack on five runs better than average on defense and two runs better than average on the basepaths for being touted as an excellent baserunner.
Projection: 630 PA, 1.7 WAR
Thus far, that is the third-best projection on the team this season. We would expect Yelich to be a little worse than average in 2013 already, and this certainly vindicates the idea that he is one of the better players on the team right now.
No Added Value
However, above and beyond the fairly large error margins on this projection, we have a simple question: is it worth it? Look back at Pierre's projection of one win. Playing Yelich over Pierre over an entire season is worth a projected 0.7 wins to the Marlins in 2013. That is less than one win on the scoreboard for a team that is not going anywhere this season. The addition of Yelich barely moves the wins needle anywhere, and it would cost the team one season of team control.
There is the real trade-off to be had here. The Marlins' additional wins in 2013 matter very little, as the club as constructed is destined for 90-plus losses. Even adding a six-win superstar to this roster would not alleviate all of its issues, and Yelich is not close to that level of performance yet. But he may, in three or four years, be an All-Star caliber performer, and the Marlins would like as many of those seasons as possible. Why throw away one of those potential All-Star years for one year of decent, unspectacular play that will not change the outcome of the season? Why trade a great year for less than one win more on the team's final 2013 standings? And why even bother to make this trade before the player has even hit Double-A? Many a prospect have failed to make the jump to Double-A despite excellent numbers beforehand.
No, Yelich is destined for the minors, and he should be. He may not be ready for the big leagues, but even if we take his projections that say that he is likely a major leaguer now, we still see no benefit in promoting him over a Juan Pierre as of right now. And promoting him now for marginal benefit would cost the Marlins a year of team control at a time in which Yelich would undoubtedly be much better. Promoting now would be an outright mistake, and the Marlins will not fall for the appeal.