Selected 23rd overall, out of a top high school circuit by the Florida Marlins in the 2010 MLB Draft, Christian Yelich is proving to be one of the most intriguing prospects in the minor leagues. After accepting an over-slot $1.7 million dollar signing bonus to turn down a University of Miami scholarship last summer, Yelich made his professional debut as an eighteen-year-old in the Gulf Coast League. Despite his pricey signing bonus, Yelich didn’t disappoint and batted .375/.423/.500 before earning a promotion to Greensboro to end the season.
Yelich’s alma meter, Westlake high school, has produced numerous professional athletes, including All-Star catcher Mike Lieberthal and National Soccer Hall of Famers Eric Wynalda and Cobi Jones. An All-Star in the California’s Southern Section Division 1 circuit– home to other recent top draft picks like Henry Owens, Austin Hedges,Peter Tago, Jesus Valdez and Cory Hahn– it’s not surprising that Yelich has burst onto the low-minors seen with exciting stat lines. Despite being two years younger than the average South Atlantic League ballplayer, Yelich ranks among league leaders in nearly every offensive category this season. To date, he’s batted .301/.372/.452 with 11 home runs, 60 RBI and he’s swiped 27 bags in 31 attempts. After making the South Atlantic League’s All-Star team earlier this summer, the young outfielder has continued to produce and he posted a monster .372/.439/.581 line with four homers this past month. His impressive athleticism, and his graceful swing allow him to stand out on the field and his lofty projections are based as much on his polished game as his premium athletic ability.
His well-rounded game is impressive, but the Marlins made Yelich their top pick and handed him $1.7 million in bonus money convinced that his bat held star power. He’s blessed with the immense hand-eye coordination that scouts look for in hitting prospects, and his polished swing mechanics afford him fantastic plate coverage. Though he’s tall, standing at 6’4″, his quick hands allow him to make contact in all parts of the zone. He loads his hands smoothly and uses his strong core, shoulders and back to generate above-average bat speed. He does a nice job of keeping his shoulders level and his hands loose, and driving through the ball. His swing elicits comparisons to All-Star first baseman John Olerud’s mechanically perfect cut, and he has makings of a .290 or .300 hitter in the big leagues.
Still just nineteen years old and barely a year removed form high school, Yelich’s ability to hit older, more advanced pitching is a credit to his impressive swing, but also his polished approach and plate discipline. Both his strikeout and walk rates are better than league-average and he’s maintained an impressive career .308 batting average in large part due to his advanced pitch recognition. Though he’s an aggressive hitter, he does a nice job of laying off bad pitches and adjusting to offspeed and breaking stuff mid-at bat. He uses his above-average bat control to foul-off tough strikes and his selectivity gives him the ability to work the count and drive pitches in his hot zone. His quick hands and phenomenal hand-eye coordination supplements his big league caliber pitch recognition and he does a nice job waiting on offspeed pitches and keeping his hands inside the ball on hard-stuff on the inner-half of the plate. As he faces more advanced pitching at higher levels, he should be able to continue to post high batting averages and on-base percentages.
Yelich’s lanky frame and smooth, level swing is geared towards contact and gap-power rather than high homerun totals. Still though, he does a fine job of barreling pitches and his bat-speed already generates fringe-average power, regularly flashing (at least) solid-average power. He lines the ball to all fields and is more than comfortable driving outside heat into the left-center field gap. He’s belted eleven homeruns and totaled 40 extra base hits through 480 career plate appearances, and his long arms and thick bone structure suggest he’ll tap into his swings’ above-average raw power with more growth and experience.
Though he’s no burner, Yelich posted 60-yard dash times in the 6.7-6.8 range at high school showcase events and he’s stolen 28 bases in 32 attempts so far in his professional career. While he hasn’t managed a single triple this season, his home park’s tiny outfield is primarily to blame, and he’s done a nice job using his above-average speed to leg out doubles, press the defense tagging-up on fly balls and hustling-out infield hits. Like fellow Marlins talent, Chris Coghlan, Yelich lacks impact-level speed but grinder mentality and the above-average wheels to be an asset on the basepaths. With more work on his reads and instincts, Yelich’s running speed should mesh well with his ability to get on-base and he should become a nice run-creator. He could steal 15-20 stolen bases annually and he should be able to score plenty of runs in the big leagues.
Though he primarily played first and third base in high school, the Marlins prefer Yelich in the outfield. Though he’s played well in center this season, the presence of talented prospects Isaac Galloway and Marcell Ozuna in Greensboro’s outfield has caused him to spend the majority of his starts in left. His above-average speed plays well in the outfield, and he moves well into the gaps. He uses his impressive body control and coordination to track deep flies and make difficult catches on the run. He’s becoming adept at making reads off the bat and getting nice jumps. Despite his lack of experience in the outfield, he takes nice routes and gets good angles on balls hit behind him and into the left-center gap. In centerfield, his tall lanky build looks awkward but his surprising athleticism allows his glove to play and he could handle an everyday job there if the Marlins so choose.
The only thing that keeps scouts from designating Yelich a five-tool talent is his arm strength. Even after improving his throwing mechanics, his arm strength still rates a tick below average. After doing away with a bad habit of dropping his elbow, Yelich has done a better job of using his shoulder in his throwing mechanics. Similar to the shortcomings he faces at the plate though, he still doesn’t do a great job of using his legs and body to add power to his arm. His slow release has chased him out of the infield, and coupled with his lack of arm strength, might ultimately limit him to left. If he continues to hone his defensive fundamentals and add some muscle to his frame, he could improve his arm strength to average.
The only thing that limits his pretty swing and hand-eye coordination from star-level game production is Yelich’s lack of homerun power. While his frame offers plenty of room for muscle and is ideal for projection and growth, Yelich approach at the plate stunts his raw power somewhat. He employs a slight leg kick and loads his hands, but he still doesn’t incorporate his long legs in his swing as much as he should. His stance gives him great balance, and his swing is graceful but he hasn’t shown a lot of power projection. Trying to add oomph behind his cut, he’ll try to add power with more leg movement and hand loading only to lose his quickness and fall behind plus velocity. Adding muscle to his frame is a necessity if he wants to carry his production to the Major Leagues, but his power ceiling might ultimately limit him to a David Murphy/James Loney type rather than a Rusty Greer/John Olerud-type hitter.
For a polished hitter (for his age), Yelich has been surprisingly streaky this season. Of course, like every young ballplayer, Yelich will have his ups-and-downs over the course of a season, but it’s worth noting that his age and experience level have shown at times during his first full season playing professionally. Generally-speaking, Yelich has hit southpaws well and his batting eye and bat control allow him to handle tough same-side breaking pitches. So far in 2011, Yelich has shown a sizeable platoon split– batting .315/.383/.498 against righties and just .270/.350/.359 against lefthanders. His approach and swing suggest he’ll handle lefties as he moves up the ladder but he’ll clearly need another couple of seasons worth of minor league ball before he can try carrying his game to the big leagues.
Yelich’s smooth swing and impressive pitch recognition give him a lofty ceiling as a .300 hitter in the big leagues. His athleticism, and above-average speed make a well-rounded prospect who should contribute defensively and on the basepaths. Despite unexciting raw power, Yelich’s 6’4″ frame holds plenty of room for muscle and his knack for barreling pitches suggests he has at least average homerun potential.
Though he’ll likely spend his career patrolling the outfield, Yelich’s graceful swing draws comparisons to those of John Olerud and Will Clark. The amount of power he develops will likely be the deciding factor on whether he’ll be a David Murphy/Ryan Sweeney-type lefty batter or a John Olerud/Mike Greenwell number-three hitter. He’s advanced for a nineteen year old playing his first full season professionally and he may not need more than a couple of seasons in the minors before he’s prepared to compete for a spot on the Marlins active roster.