In the midst of an offseason which is best described as a payroll purge the Indians front office emphasized the importance of providing young players an opportunity to contribute at the big league level. Whether this was lip-service to development as a product of budget cuts or an intentional outcome is yet to be seen. Matt Lyons from LetsGoTribe.com wrote an exquisite piece discussing how the Indians avoiding aging riff-raff is an effort to hide Terry Francona’s warts.
With Jesus Aguilar blossoming in Milwaukee and the Indians move of Tito’s prospect foe Yandy Diaz there is reason to believe that pressure should be applied to deploying young prospects. Yet, the question raised by this notion is what players are ready and in need of opportunity at the big league level. At the top of the list? Yu Chang. With Bobby Bradley still in need of offensive development; Bradley Zimmer attempting to return from a serious injury and a fundamentally flawed offensive profile; and Triston McKenzie in need of continuing strengthening the Indians have two non-relievers primed to breakout in the big leagues: Oscar Mercado and Yu Chang.
Yu Chang is a postmodern baseball player; a profile iteration that would not have been so well thought of even a decade ago. Chang is launch angle turned to max volume with the positional versatility to play up his offensive strengths. Returning to the EHC position player evaluation model is the consideration of the four essential tools: power, on-base ability, base running, and defense.
First, Chang’s most exciting tool, power. If one wants to max out power the ideal approach is to pull fly balls. Chang pulls a plethora of fly balls. Chang hooks the ball to pull side 45%+ and hits line drives/fly balls 65%+. However, Chang has actual above-average power with an ability to clear the fence across the entire park and is not completely reliant on pull field power.
For an infielder with significant versatility Chang offers the upside to post a 20 home run seasoned a .200 ISO.
When it comes to on-base ability Chang has conflicting positives and negatives
While pulling the ball is particularly valuable for increasing power it tends to create a detriment to batting average on balls in play (“BABIP”). While Chang’s BABIP have been consistently solid because of his contact authority a pull frequency this high will cause opponents to shift and cap his BABIP and batting average at the big league level. Further, while Chang is not a turnstile his K% has traditionally been higher than optimal ranging from 20% to 27%. Positively, Chang posted a sub-20% K% in the Arizona Fall League. Finally, Chang has produced average to above-average walk rates while being consistently young as compared to his competition which is a strong indicator of long term success. Chang’s on base ability will be the biggest influence in terms of his ceiling; can he make enough contact for his power to play up? This is unanswerable but there is a strong foundation for optimism.
Chang is not an impact baserunner. Chang is like many in Major League Baseball who is not more than marginally above or below average on the base paths to the point that expending significant time on this toolset is unnecessary. Chang will not clog the base paths and may steal 5 bases or so some season.
Chang has a plus arm and has been a tremendous worker during his time in the organization. For years there has been a question as to whether Chang can stick at shortstop defensively but there has been consistent improvement through work with John McDonald and others. His lateral range has improved significantly and the organization has been impressed with the progress. With all that said Chang is probably average at best at shortstop. However, with a plus arm and solid athleticism Chang could play plus at both third base and second base.
In a final note, modern defensive valuation has to incorporate versatility. Perhaps Chang’s most enticing profile is that of the super-versatile power hitter who can be utilized across the infield. Chang has had significant success against LHP and with Jason Kipnis handicapped Chang’s place on the Indians roster to start is obvious. First, Chang can rest Lindor and Ramirez; further he should start against LHP and be used frequently as a pinch hitter of Kipnis in close games against LHP. For Francona, it is pretty easy to find 400 plate appearances for Yu Chang and for the future of the organization, it is essential.
The Indians are trying to structure and understand what 2020 and beyond will look like; whether that includes Yu Chang is unclear. However, for them to ascertain the answer, opportunity is essential. Chang has a number of exciting tools which could be the basis of a long term piece but only time, and hopefully, opportunity will tell.
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