Spring Training: Miami Marlins

JUPITER, Fla. -- Christian Yelich's most vivid recollection from 2012 spring training camp is a painful one. He was standing in the on-deck circle when Miami Marlins catching prospect J.T. Realmuto -- his roommate -- accidentally threw his bat while swinging through a pitch and caught Yelich flush in the elbow. The injury was hard to top for pure weirdness, but Yelich came close in June, when he took a knee to the head while executing a slide, and suffered a concussion.

[+] EnlargeChristian Yelich
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsChristian Yelich, 21, is having a spring to remember with the Marlins.
Yelich's .330 average and .519 slugging percentage in the high-A Florida State League were testament to his talent and resilience. This spring, he's doling out more punishment than anyone should expect from a 21-year-old kid wearing jersey No. 76.

Yelich, the 23rd overall pick in the 2010 draft, is having a monster spring, with a team-leading four home runs and 12 RBIs, a .359 average and a 1.251 OPS. The organizational plan calls for the outfielder to begin this season with Double-A Jacksonville, but Yelich is making it awfully difficult for the Marlins to pull the plug on his Grapefruit League adventure. Why ship him out to minor league camp when nobody can get him out in the big league games?

Hall of Famer Andre Dawson, a senior adviser with the Marlins, calls Yelich a "joy to watch." A National League scout who has seen a lot of the Marlins this spring said Yelich's setup in the box and his swing are reminiscent of Jacoby Ellsbury, and that he has a "little bit of Shawn Green in him" as well.

Tino Martinez, the Marlins' new hitting coach, needed all of two games to conclude that Yelich is legit. Yelich's sense of outward calm and strike-zone awareness at such an early age helped to fuel Martinez's enthusiasm.

"He's just a natural-born hitter," Martinez said. "It doesn't matter if he's facing rookies or guys who've played six or eight years. He knows what he's doing and has a great game plan up there. There's nothing fancy about him. He just hits."

Yelich's bat prompted the Marlins to give him a $1.7 million bonus out of Westlake High School in California. The Marlins drafted him as a first baseman with the intent of moving him to center field, but it remains to be seen whether he'll wind up in center or left. The early scouting reports on Yelich questioned whether he would hit with power, but his 27 homers in 909 minor league at-bats are a sign of some burgeoning thump. Or as Martinez likes to call it, "wiry pop."

At 6-foot-3, 180 pounds, Yelich is more a glider than a burner, but he can track balls well and has the long strides to eat up ground in the outfield. The biggest item on his agenda is cleaning up his throwing motion. Yelich has a long release and throws across his body, and the Marlins are working with him on stepping through his throws so he can do a better job of getting on top of them.

Yelich experienced a personal thrill late last week when the Marlins played the Yankees and he met his boyhood favorite, Derek Jeter, thanks to an introduction from teammate Juan Pierre. Yelich was on his way to the outfield to stretch, and the next thing he knew, he was chatting it up with the Yankees' captain and Pierre down the third-base line.

"That was my guy growing up," Yelich said of Jeter. "It was probably the coolest thing out of this whole camp. I grew up idolizing him and seeing him as the face of baseball. To finally get a chance to meet him was pretty special. It was kind of a surreal moment, I guess you could say."

When a guy is on a roll, he's on a roll. Yelich recently went out to dinner with fellow prospects Jake Marisnick, Alex Sanabia and Realmuto at an upscale steak restaurant, and the waitress picked Marisnick's card in a game of "credit card roulette," so everyone else got to eat for free. This is the type of thing that happens when you're hitting .359.

He's just a natural-born hitter. It doesn't matter if he's facing rookies or guys who've played six or eight years. He knows what he's doing and has a great game-plan up there. There's nothing fancy about him. He just hits.

-- Marlins hitting coach Tino
Martinez on Yelich
Yelich doesn't miss an opportunity for self-improvement. He spent much of the offseason working out in Southern California with Dmitri Young, the gregarious former two-time All-Star who made his share of mistakes during a 13-year career with the Cardinals, Reds, Tigers and Nationals. The man known as "Da Meathook" passed along some life and baseball lessons that Yelich readily absorbed.

"He talked to me about what to expect and how to act once I got here," Yelich said. "He told me there are things to do and things not to do -- he said he did them both. I appreciate someone like that taking the time to talk to me and telling me how to prepare. You kind of go into this blind. You have an idea what's going to happen, but you don't really know until you get here."

The Marlins are going nowhere in a stacked National League East, so if and when Yelich cools off, they'll ship him to minor league camp so he can avoid starting his salary arbitration clock. But with Giancarlo Stanton away at the World Baseball Classic until recently and Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson no longer with the club, Yelich has combined with slick-fielding shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria and some of the other kids in camp to give the Marlins reason to be encouraged about the future. Amid the nonstop Jeffrey Loria bashing, they need all of the pleasant diversions they can get.

When will the fun come to an end? Yelich can provide some clarity by finally making a few outs.

"I get asked about it probably a couple times every day from different people," Yelich said. "At the end of the day, I can't really control it. It's out of my hands. All I can do is keep going out there and playing hard, and whatever happens, happens. I can't be disappointed either way.

"I came here from day one with the whole mindset to have fun and try to enjoy this experience as much as possible. I've been fortunate that it's all worked out pretty well so far. I'm just enjoying the ride and trying to stick it out as long as possible."

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