Revisiting: Remembering when Yelich made his Spring Training case to stay

Revisiting: Remembering when Yelich made his Spring Training case to stay


Man On Second Baseball looks back to Spring Training 2013, the year then outfield prospect Christian Yelich made his case to be on the Opening Day roster when the Miami Marlins already were committed to starting him off in the Minor Leagues.

By Joe Frisaro @ManOn2nd

Make the decision a tough one.

That’s long been a Spring Training message conveyed by MLB clubs to prospects aiming to make Opening Day rosters.

This Spring Training, Kansas City Royals phenom Bobby Witt Jr. was doing just that, becoming the talk of Spring Training by his performance, and maturity. The 20-year-old, who hasn’t played higher than AZL in 2019, and the alternate training site training in the shortened 2020, pandemic-impacted season.

The elite ones have a way of separating themselves from the pack, and Witt did that early in Spring Training, to the point where the Royals didn’t rule out having him make the Opening Day roster. Those plans changed recently, when the decision ultimately was made to send him down.

The fan in you wanted to see Witt defy the averages and be in the big leagues from Day 1. But tough decisions shouldn’t necessarily be made with you heart. They have to be decided by your head. It’s the correct call to not rush his development.

In many cases, where prospects start off is predetermined before Day One of Spring Training, and well before the first pair of cleats dig into the turf on the backfields and a ball is thrown in February.

The fun part of this time of year is tracking the paths of truly gifted players as they try to break into the big leagues.

Witt flirted with making it out of the chute this year.

Marlins fans may recall back in 2013, when a lanky left-handed hitting outfield prospect gave the Marlins front office something to think about.

Christian Yelich, then a 21-year-old, entered Spring Training as a non-roster invitee projected to start off at Double-A.

The Marlins had no reason to rush Yelich’s development. He had dominated at Class A Advanced Jupiter in 2012, posting a slash line of .330/.404/.519 with 12 home runs and 48 RBIs. Those big numbers came in the Florida State League, which is not a hitters’ league.

The Marlins were rebuilding then, and veteran Juan Pierre was signed to play left field, returning to Miami to help mentor young prospects, while allowing players like Yelich time to further develop.

All this was mapped out on paper. Pierre would be on the Opening Day roster, and Yelich would eventually be sent down.

The catch to this plan was Yelich’s skillset. In the spring of 2013, he was proving to the front office and coaching staff that he was ready. Or at least, he wasn’t as overmatched as some may have thought.

Yelich had a phenomenal Spring Training, hitting .364/.451/.818 with five home runs, three doubles and a triple. He struck out seven times in 44 at-bats and walked six times. His OPS was an eye-popping 1.269.

According to Man On Second sources who were with the club in 2013, as much as the organization felt they had a future star, they felt Yelich needed more Minor League at-bats and overall playing time.

Still, Yelich was making his presence felt by stepping up late in spring, when players are dialing it in for the regular season. Spring Training stats often are misleading. One reason is players might get off to hot starts, facing pitchers who aren’t completely ready. By the end of spring, pitchers tend to pick up the pace, because they are getting into season form.

In those games, Yelich had a walk-off home run, and several other late-inning, big hits.

As well as on the field, Yelich impressed with his work habits, and how he handled himself around the veterans and the other young players.

Another question was whether he would play center field or left field, and player development was working with him on his throws.

What ended up making the decision easier for the Marlins was the fact Yelich suffered a foot injury late in camp, and he also dealt with an abdominal issue. He started off in the Minor Leagues, and made his MLB debut at 21-years, 230-days old, on July 23, 2013 at Colorado.

In his MLB debut, Yelich went 2-for-4, with hits in his first two at-bats off Jhoulys Chacin. He’s been hitting ever since.

Today, Yelich is one of the best players in the game, and in 2018, he won the National League Most Valuable Player Award with the Milwaukee Brewers.

But back in Spring Training of 2013, Yelich was a Top 20 overall prospect looking to make his mark.

Now, there is a twist to the prospects making it on Opening Day saga. The same 2013, as Yelich was the prospect who received the most hype on the Marlins, a 20-year-old pitching prospect actually did appear on the Opening Day roster.

Jose Fernandez, who had been sent down a few weeks before the first game, ended up being added to the Opening Day roster without pitching above Class A Advanced Jupiter. This move was made because of injuries late in Spring Training, and Fernandez was added out of necessity.

That’s another story for another day.

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