LAKE BUENA VISTA -- Ozzie Guillen was so dazzled by Wade LeBlanc this time a year ago that he labeled him the “Cy Young” of spring training. The pitcher could do no wrong.
The southpaw from Louisiana chuckled about Guillen’s high praise when reporters asked him about it Monday.
“Where’d that get me?” LeBlanc said after making his first Grapefruit League start, retiring the Braves in order in the first and second innings. “It got me three months in New Orleans. That’s what it got me.”
Despite turning in a strong spring last year, the Marlins optioned LeBlanc to Triple A New Orleans.
LeBlanc never has started a season on a major-league team’s Opening Day roster. There’s a good chance that will change on April 1 when the Marlins open the season.
LeBlanc could make the staff as a long reliever or the Marlins’ fifth starter. A couple of factors work in his favor — he’s out of minor-league options, and he would be the team’s only lefty starter. The group of contenders for the fifth spot include John Maine, Kevin Slowey, Tom Koehler, Brad Hand and Alex Sanabia.
“I think I’m always going to have to earn what I get, and that’s how it should be,” LeBlanc said. “...
So, if I were to perform this spring and end up in the fifth slot, I would appreciate it because I would know that I earned it.”
LeBlanc made a strong first showing Monday. The Braves didn’t manage a baserunner during the 28-year-old’s mandated two innings. LeBlanc struck out two and threw strikes with 15 of his 21 pitches.
“I think anytime you have a lefty in your rotation, that’s nice, especially in our division with a lot of big lefty hitters,” manager Mike Redmond said. “Definitely liked what I saw out of him [Monday] against a good lineup. That’s a good test for him. If he pitches like he did [Monday] over the course of spring training, then he’ll put a lot of pressure on us to put him on the team.”
The performance was similar to those of his last spring when LeBlanc went 2-1 with a 1.31 ERA, striking out 19 and walking only two in 20 2/3 innings.
But the Marlins elected to go with Chad Gaudin as their long man because he was a nonroster invitee with an opt-out in his contract. LeBlanc had one option remaining at the time, and the Marlins sent him to New Orleans.
LeBlanc was recalled in July to work out of the bullpen and on Aug. 1, after Carlos Zambrano pitched his way out of the rotation, made his first start of the season. LeBlanc ended up going 2-5 with a 3.67 ERA while bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen.
“If anybody tells you they like bouncing around, they’re lying to you,” LeBlanc said. “But I think, with the personality I have, it allows me to be able to do whatever they need me to do more so than some guys. I’m not the kind of guy that needs a full day to focus on getting into game mode like some guys do. That allows me to bounce back and forth between the bullpen and rotation fairly easily.”
LeBlanc doesn’t care whether he’s in the bullpen or rotation to start the season. He just wants to be in Washington with the Marlins when they open the season.
“I’d prefer one of the 25 spots,” LeBlanc replied when asked which role he would prefer. “I’d prefer to avoid New Orleans.”
And that’s coming from a Cajun.