The Miami Marlins are not competing next season, but that does not mean that the team has nothing to play for in 2014. The Marlins' keys to success are going to be a select group of players, and in particular those players' development in this upcoming year. One of the most important players in that group is top prospect Christian Yelich, who is expected to shoulder a critical top-of-the-lineup role for Miami in 2014.
But the Marlins have botched previous major outfield prospects with athleticism for days in the past. And as great as Yelich is, he is not without flaws in his game as well. What if those flaws never recover? Can Miami afford to lose another top prospect to average-dom or worse?
The Pessimist's Case
The pessimistic case against Yelich is that, for a player who is supposed to be polished at the plate, he has distinct weaknesses that may never fully get addressed. Yelich is a player who relies on plate discipline and a keen eye along with strong, line-drive contact and base hits to succeed at the plate. The thought was that, as he ages and grows into his body (and stops looking like a high-school child), he would gain more power.
But what if Yelich never develops that power long-term? What if his issues with contact and with left-handed pitching continue going forward? There is always the off chance that happens, and that 2014 is just a prelude to a mediocre hitting career. Last season, Yelich whiffed on 24.2 percent of his plate appearances and only managed a .280 batting average thanks to a whopping .380 BABIP. What if he is not Ichiro and cannot maintain that kind of mark on balls in play, but he still struggles with power and cannot cut down his strikeouts? Dropping Yelich to a .250 or .260 batting average, even with his excellent plate discipline, would cause problems with his lack of power as it currently stands.
A Marlins Historical Comparison
The Marlins want Yelich to improve a little on each and every aspect of his game so he can become a multidimensional asset to the team. With his athleticism in the outfield and his ability to run the bases, he does not have to develop into a .300/.400/.500 hitter at the plate to be an All-Star contributor. But he cannot do what other left-handed Marlins top prospects have done before.
Both Hermida and Morrison were highly touted coming out of the minors. Morrison had time to polish his skills at the plate, and by the time he exited, he was even better at avoiding strikeouts than Yelich was. Hermida's final season in 2005 in Double-A yielded a 17.6 percent strikeout rate at age 21, which is conveniently the same age Yelich was when he was slogging through Double-A last year. Both of these players displayed merely acceptable power over the course of careers as prospects. And in the end, neither could overcome their mediocre Major League power along with their other issues at the plate, even despite above-average walk rates.
More importantly, the Marlins need above-average offensive production from Yelich because he will primarily be manning left field thanks to his poor throwing arm. Some of his historical predecessors have displayed batting lines that would not hold up in left field, even if Yelich is solidly above average defensively. A .260/.340/.420 line would not be acceptable for a left fielder and would be, at best, average with good defense and baserunning. Again, the Marlins need better than average from a top prospect like him.
The Pessimist Projection
That Hermida/Morrison batting line is the sort of thing Steamer is projecting for Yelich next season. With no improvement on power and a decline in BABIP and continued strikeouts, Yelich could be in line for a .260/.330/.393 batting line. That would give him a .319 wOBA that would be disappointing compared to even Hermida's and Morrison's. Combine that with above average defense and running and it translates into a 1.2-win season in 600 plate appearances.
That would be if Yelich shows no improvement and regresses on his BABIP. This is still in play, and it would be a major step backward for Miami. The Fish have to hope that Yelich can find adjustments heading into his second season to avoid this fate.