Why you should care
Because it’s not just white sand and parties in South Beach.
Fans tuning into the 2017 World Baseball Classic championship had reason to be surprised. A decade since he’d been cut from Team USA’s youth team, Christian Yelich, the Miami Marlins’ baby-faced center fielder, was batting third in the biggest game of Team USA’s history. And he was having a ball.
“The most fun, by far,” Yelich told MLB Network moments after USA defeated heavily favored Puerto Rico, 8-0, to claim America’s first title in the international tournament. “We just tried to honor our country, and we were all here for the same reason — to win.”
At first glance, Yelich, 25, might appear more leadoff hitter than power-producing slugger. But USA manager Jim Leyland knew then what MLB fans around the country are starting to find out — Yelich is a force. He was named to the tournament’s All-World team after the title game, the latest addition to a growing list of professional accolades. But in baseball, where regional fandom reigns supreme, Yelich is just now entering the national conversation. And as Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria prepares to sell the franchise, Yelich looks to become a key asset in the team’s future — either that, or one hell of a trade chip.
“He has one of those pure, old-school swings,” former MLB catcher, scout and hitting coach Erik Pappas tells OZY. “You don’t expect him to have so much pop, but he can rake. And he’s equally as skilled in the outfield.”
Born and raised in Thousand Oaks, California, the eldest of three Yelich boys, Christian began playing baseball at age 4 and never stopped. Days meant Little League and year-round travel competitions, with nights spent at Dodgers games or watching Derek Jeter’s Yankees on TV. The obsession paid off when both Christian and his younger brother, Collin, were drafted by MLB. Cameron, the youngest brother, chose to serve his country and join the Marines. “What he represents is way bigger than anything I’m doing,” Yelich told MLB Network after the WBC victory. “He’s fighting for the USA; I’m playing baseball for it. There’s a big gap between those things.”
The Marlins’ impending sale has made Yelich, and his top-performing teammates, the topic of trade discussions.
By his senior year at Westlake High School in 2010, Yelich had accepted a scholarship to play for national powerhouse University of Miami. Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, a new route to South Beach opened when the Marlins chose Yelich 23rd overall, using a $1.7 million signing bonus to lure him away from college.
Right from the start, Yelich’s track to the majors picked up speed. He batted over .300 with double-digit home runs at a few different levels of Single-A in 2011 and 2012. In 2013, following just half a season of Double-A, the Marlins decided to skip the Triple-A formalities — their future center fielder had waited long enough. In his debut MLB season, Yelich hit .288 in 62 games for the last-place Marlins. The team had traded away all of its veteran talent, but the emergence of Yelich, fellow rookie pitcher Jose Fernandez and young slugger Giancarlo Stanton told fans there was promise on the horizon.
Despite Loria’s questionable — some would say detestable — tactics (during 18 years as owner of the Montreal Expos and the Marlins, he repeatedly dismantled talented teams via fire sale in favor of tax deductions and revenue-sharing dollars), the Marlins have steadily improved since their humbling 62-100 season. After winning a Gold Glove in his first full season, Yelich signed a seven-year $49 million contract extension. That vote of confidence worked wonders for the slick outfielder, who last season moved from left to center field, and notably boosted his power at the plate, hitting .298 with 21 home runs and 98 RBI en route to the Silver Slugger award — given to each league’s top hitter at his position.
Meanwhile, Stanton, a home run machine, signed the most lucrative contract ($325 million) in sports history in 2014. The Cuban-born fan favorite Fernandez had blossomed into an annual Cy Young candidate, but on Sept. 25, with the first winning season since 2009 within reach, he crashed his boat off South Beach. He died at 24. The Marlins defeated the New York Mets in an emotional game the night of the accident, but dropped four of its last five games, falling to 79-82 overall.
Outfielders to have at least a .360 OBP & 40 SB over the last 3 seasons:
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 8, 2016
The Marlins’ impending sale has made Yelich, and his top-performing teammates, the topic of trade discussions. Should another organizational rebuild be imminent, new ownership may prefer young prospects to wasting the prime years of a big leaguer. But Fernandez’s death may also play a role in where Yelich ends up. Last October, in an end-of-the-season conference call, Marlins president Michael Hill said the tragedy had forced management to reconsider which players were untouchable. “Everything changed when we got that call about Jose,” Hill said. “We will have to look at everything.” In other words, the team Hill thought he was building is no more. The Marlins need pitchers.
A clearer future for the Gold Glover will no doubt take shape after the July 31 trade deadline. The Yankees and Mets, whom Yelich has abused since entering the league, certainly have prospects available to feed the Marlins, but other teams are in play, too. Or, he and Stanton may remain the faces of Miami’s franchise.
Either way, when the World Baseball Classic returns in 2021, Yelich will be wearing red, white and blue.
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