JUPITER, Fla. (AP) — If Giancarlo Stanton wasn’t launching moonshots on a regular basis, Christian Yelich might be the talk of the Miami Marlins’ outfield.
“I think (Yelich) is a star right now,” manager Don Mattingly said.
Mattingly expects the left-handed hitting Yelich, a former Gold Glove winner, current member of Team USA for the World Baseball Classic and a career .293 hitter, to take another step forward this season.
“I think power is still coming, and I think average, there’s more there, and I think there’s less strikeouts there,” Mattingly said.
Yelich, 25, didn’t reach double-digit homers in any of his first three seasons before finding his power stroke in 2016, hitting 21.
Eleven of those homers came in August or September.
“Obviously it ticked up last year a little bit, but it’s not something that I’m forcing,” Yelich said. “I’m going to stay within my approach and if they start to come, they start to come. Even last year, it wasn’t a conscious effort to hit more home runs, it kind of just happened. That’s how you want it to be.”
Yelich also will take on more responsibility in the field this season.
A left fielder for most of his major league career, Yelich is switching to center — a position he played frequently in the minors and 39 times last season.
He was there on Saturday, when Miami opened its Grapefruit League season with an 8-7 victory over St. Louis, launching a two-run homer to right in his second at-bat after drawing a walk in his first.
“The thing that’s different in center field is that you have priority on fly balls, you are responsible for knowing where everyone’s at, you’ve got more ground to cover and you’ve got to get the ball over the mound when you are throwing home,” Yelich said. “Those are really the only differences between center and any of the other positions.”
At 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, Yelich effortlessly tracks down fly balls in what is a big and asymmetric outfield at Marlins Park.
“He’s a guy who gets great jumps out there,” pitcher Tom Koehler said. “When he gets running, he gets moving. I think him patrolling center field is going to be pretty good for us.”
Yelich’s move to center means Marcell Ozuna is sliding over to left. Include Stanton, 27, and the average age of the Marlins’ starting outfield is 26. They have four All-Star appearances among them — none of which can be attributed to Yelich.
Coming up through the Marlins system allowed the trio to build a rapport, which should aid the position switches.
“We enjoy playing with each other — that’s kind of what helps moving around — you kind of know each other’s range and who can get to what ball,” Yelich said.
With three sluggers, all of whom have displayed Gold Glove-caliber defense, the Marlins are poised to field one of the best outfields in baseball.
“I haven’t really gone and judged everyone else’s (outfield),” Mattingly said. “I like our outfield, though. I’ll say that. I think all our guys that we talk about starting out there are all capable of hitting 30 homers and driving in 100 runs.”
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