It was two years ago when Miguel Rojas was invited by Don Mattingly to join the Los Angeles Dodgers when they traveled to Australia for Opening Day.
For Rojas, a slick-fielding infielder who had spent eight years bouncing around the minors, it was the dream of a lifetime — his first Opening Day in a big-league uniform.
Except for one significant detail.
He wasn’t on the Dodgers’ 25-man roster. He was a spare part, accompanying the Dodgers on their trip Down Under as protection in case of a last-minute injury.
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“They introduced all the players and I was able to stand on the line with them,” Rojas said. “I was on the bench, watching everything. I was really excited. But I was in running shoes, not my spikes, because I wasn’t able to play. I want to do it with spikes.”
Rojas will very likely receive that chance when the Marlins open the season April 5. The 27-year-old native of Venezuela is the leading candidate to win the job as their utility infielder, capable of playing all four positions.
“I think I’m in great position this year,” Rojas said. “But everything is up to me.”
When the Marlins made their December 2014 trade with the Dodgers for Dee Gordon and Dan Haren, Rojas was part of the package. But he wasn’t a throw-in. The Marlins refused to complete the deal unless he was included.
While gifted with the glove, Rojas struggled at the plate.
He owns just a .244 career average in the minors, and in part-time duty for the Dodgers in 2014, hit just .181.
But his bat came to life last season at Triple A New Orleans, where Rojas hit .301, and he continued hitting after the Marlins called him up in late June. He hit .282, much of that in regular duty when he was thrust into a starting role after shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria went out with a hamstring injury.
It’s his defense, though, that the Marlins find most attractive.
“He’s the prototype National League player,” Marlins infield coach Perry Hill said. “He’s good. He can play all four [infield positions], now. And he’s solid wherever he goes. He’s a student of the game. He just doesn’t go out there and wing it.”
After Hechavarria played his final game Sept. 2, Rojas took over at short and didn’t commit an error in his final 25 starts at the position.
“For me, that way you can prove to them, if something happens to the starters, that you’re going to be as good as them,” Rojas said. “That’s my role on this team, make them feel comfortable if somebody goes down. They don’t have to go somewhere else to get that guy.”
Rojas can also be used at second and third, and he has been working at first base, where the Marlins feel he could become a late-inning defensive replacement.
“I’m ready to contribute if I have to play first defensively,” he said.
Rojas played winter ball in Venezuela until a bout with chicken pox put him out of action.
But he also spent the winter working on his strength, running and hitting.
“If I can run better, I can get more hits, get more stolen bases,” he said.
Most of all, though, Rojas wants to be on his first Opening Day roster.
“But I want to do it with spikes this time,” he said.