Fish Stripes 2014 Marlins Season Preview: Christian Yelich

Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

Christian Yelich is the latest in a long line of highly touted Marlins hitting prospects, and he will make his full-season debut in 2014. Will he turn into the next success story like Giancarlo Stanton or flounder like Jeremy Hermida?

The Miami Marlins have faltered over the last several seasons to develop quality top position player talent. Aside from Miguel Cabrera and Giancarlo Stanton, a homegrown star talent has not really emerged from the Marlins system; indeed, few quality Major Leaguers have even come down the pipeline from Miami in the last decade. From Jeremy Hermida to Logan Morrison to Matt Dominguez, it seems the Marlins cannot find the right formula to provide hitting talent for the Major League team.

That makes the development of Christian Yelich in Miami all the more important. Yelich is the next in line for the throne of top Marlins position player, as he was a well-regarded prospect all throughout his minor league career and finally broke into the majors in mid-2013. Yelich had a successful first run in the bigs, batting .288/.370/.396 (.341 wOBA), but how will he follow up in his sophomore attempt?

Depth Chart: Left Field

1. Christian Yelich
2. Brian Bogusevic

Minor League Depth: Jake Marisnick/Marcell Ozuna, Brent Keys, Kyle Jensen

The Marlins are turning to Yelich to help anchor the top of the lineup and get on base for Giancarlo Stanton, who has not had help around him for 1.5 seasons. Yelich's strengths as a minor leaguer included his advanced approach at the plate, which was predicated on taking walks and getting on base in addition to having stellar hitting skills. He displayed that last season by posting a 42 percent swing rate with a 22 percent rate on swings outside the strike zone. Yelich's discerning eye led to a solid 11.4 percent walk rate in his rookie outing. Continuing that trend would bode well for the 22-year-old prospect.

But contact remains a concern for Yelich, even from his days in the minors. He never posted elite strikeout avoidance, never dipping lower than a 19 percent strikeout rate for any full minor league season. In Double-A in 2013, he struggled to his highest strikeout rate of 23.4 percent, and that continued in the majors. Yelich's 76 percent contact rate is not impressive, and the 87 percent rate in the zone is merely average. Part of the issue with this problem is likely his platoon concerns, and the Marlins will likely be unable to hide Yelich in any meaningful way versus lefties given that their only backup outfielder is also left-handed. This remains Yelich's primary border to a successful career.

The reason this is the only remaining issue is that everything else is either in development or fully established. His plate discipline in on the mark, and his power at the plate should develop as he bulks up over time. Right now, Marlins Park plays very well to Yelich's "gap power" strengths, as he can pelt doubles and triples in the expansive power alleys of the outfield. Yelich's running game is also well-developed, as he displayed last year when he went 10-for-10 on steals. He runs intelligently when not stealing as well, as he showed in taking countless extra bases on shorter singles. On the heels of an article displaying the Marlins as one of the worst baserunning teams in the league, new baserunning coach Brett Butler must be ecstatic to have an adept runner at the top of the lineup like Yelich.

Defensively, Yelich did not show much last season, but the athleticism to be a strong defender is there. His arm is a well-known weakness that should limit him to left field going forward. Otherwise, Miami is confident that he can provide good range in left field and cover enough ground to make up for his other deficiencies once his instincts and familiarity in Marlins Park kick in.

Projection

Projections for Yelich have been mixed in terms of overall production.

PROJECTION PA AVG OBP SLG WOBA WAR
Steamer 612 .261 .330 .390 .318 1.2
Oliver 600 .262 .331 .419 .333 2.3
ZiPS 530 .258 .328 .417 .328 2.1

Two of the three listed systems see Yelich putting up acceptable but below-average power numbers on his way to an above-average batting campaign. Steamer finds that less likely and posits that Yelich will hit closer to a leadoff man's power numbers, though all systems see at least 11 homers for a full season. The differences in expectations are small enough to be negligible, especially in light of the fact that each system pegged him for a .260 batting average and .330 OBP. The three systems expect a walk rate between nine and 10 percent and an average strikeout rate of 25.2 percent. This means that we can expect to see a similar plate discipline dynamic that we saw last season from Yelich.

Yelich is expected to hit at the top of the lineup and, prior to last year in Double-A, never really displayed significant injury problems in his career. If we predict 650 plate appearances for him while batting second, the Marlins could be looking at a 2.1-win player for them for the full season. This incorporates a mostly neutral defensive output in left field, yielding a net negative on the defensive end, and a regression on Yelich's insane baserunning numbers from last year.

Given his lack of a Major League track record, this is all understandable, but Marlins fans should be excitd nonetheless. If Yelich becomes a premiere baserunning threat and a more positive defender by the metrics as his career goes on, he could easily begin approaching three-win territory without developing at the plate. The first thing scouts rave about regarding Yelich is his picture-perfect swing, which is a good sign that his work with the bat should only improve. The Marlins have yet another shot at a potentiak star hitting talent, and the 2014 season will be critical to see how that player develops.

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