Randy Choate has an Opening Day eve ritual.
The veteran reliever searches out every teammate that has never experienced an Opening Day in the majors and shakes their hand. And this year the Marlins are keeping him extra busy.
When the Marlins are introduced to an expected crowd of about 40,000 before Friday night’s season opener against the New York Mets, six of their 25 players will be experiencing an Opening Day as a big leaguer for the first time.
So, too, will manager Edwin Rodriguez. “Never even as a coach, a player or a fan,” Rodriguez said Thursday.
With that much inexperience sitting inside the dugout, the question becomes: Are the Marlins too young to pose a serious challenge to the National League East favorites, the Phillies and Braves? Answered 23-year-old left fielder Logan Morrison, who is one of the Opening Day first-timers: “Ignorance is bliss.”
Larry Beinfest, the Marlins’ president of baseball operations, said the team’s youth and relative lack of experience is not a concern, even though four of the team’s eight starting position players — Morrison, Mike Stanton, Chris Coghlan and Donnie Murphy — have never played a full season in the majors.
“I have never really contemplated that,” said Beinfest, who gave the Marlins a redesign over the winter with an emphasis on improving them defensively and in the bullpen. “I think these guys deserve to be here.”
The three outfielders are not only young, but have never played as a unit, save for a handful of spring training games.
Coghlan, 25, is moving to center field for the first time. Morrison is a former first baseman who has had his moments in left. Stanton, a 21-year-old right fielder, is being asked to make up for lost power with the offseason trade of Dan Uggla to the Braves. Murphy is a utility infielder who is being asked to take over at third base.
Even Gaby Sanchez, the Marlins’ first baseman, has only one full season under his belt. He finished fourth in voting for the NL Rookie of the Year award last season. That leaves only three position players with any lengthy experience: shortstop Hanley Ramirez (five seasons), new second baseman Omar Infante (nine seasons) and new catcher John Buck (seven seasons).
Rodriguez said it might be a greater concern if the outfield trio of Coghlan, Morrison and Stanton were starting fresh in the majors. But Coghlan was the league’s Rookie of the Year in 2009 while playing in 129 games. He appeared in 91 more last season before a knee injury landed him on the shelf. Morrison was called up in late July last year and played in 62 games. Stanton was promoted from Double A in early June and saw action in 100 games.
“Last year, it was like they were trying to prove to everyone they belonged,” Rodriguez said of Stanton and Morrison. “Now they know they belong at this level.”
The inexperience of the everyday lineup is offset by a pitching staff that, though relatively young, can no longer be considered raw.
Josh Johnson, who takes the mound for the Marlins in the opener, has more than 100 career starts. So does Ricky Nolasco, Saturday’s starter. And the Marlins added seasoned veterans in Choate, Buck, Infante and starting pitcher Javier Vazquez over the winter.
“We have a sprinkling of experience now that we haven’t had the last few years,” Beinfest said.
Still, even Beinfest acknowledged that there’s enough youth on the club — and managing inside the dugout — that there are sure to be butterflies Friday when the Marlins take the field for what will be the last opener at Sun Life Stadium and also the last one in which the word “Florida” appears in front of their names. They will officially become the Miami Marlins in November.
“Opening Day jitters are to be expected,” Beinfest said.
Choate made his way around the clubhouse Thursday, shaking one hand after another: Morrison, Stanton, Scott Cousins, Brett Hayes, Mike Dunn and Brian Sanches.
“Your first one,” Choate said, “is second only to your first call-up..”