“The Lion”, Miami Marlins new catcher, is glad to be closer to home
There was the spring of 2003 when only one of the 25 rosters spots was up for grabs on the Marlins. That solitary opening, which took six weeks to determine, was for a fifth outfielder.
There was the spring of ’06 when pretty much the entire roster — outside of Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis and a small handful of others — turned into a fill-in-the-blank guessing game.
The spring of ’19 for the Marlins lies somewhere in between.
Some jobs are settled. Many others aren’t.
And Marlins front office executives are loving it.
“When a job is on the line, you expect to get the best version of everyone, and that’s what’s exciting,” said Michael Hill, president of baseball operations.
In other words, competition breeds max effort and performance.
As the Marlins enter Year 2 of a rebuild that began after Bruce Sherman and Derek Jeter took over the franchise, they’re trying to figure out which players fit in their future while playing for today.
In 1999, one year after the Marlins lost a franchise-record 108 games following the fire sale of their ’97 World Series team, they entered the season with a cast of unknowns and a sprinkling of veterans.
That ’99 team finished 64-98, a slight improvement over ’98.
But, a young infield of Derrek Lee, Mike Lowell, Luis Castillo and Alex Gonzalez became the cornerstone of their second World Series title four years later. The Marlins in ’99 also drafted high school Josh Beckett and signed then 16-year-old shortstop out of Venezuela — Cabrera.
It’s impossible to know whether the new regime will be as successful acquiring the same sort of impact prospects that led the rebuilding Marlins of ’99 to the same heights.
But, 20 years later, it’s using the same, build-from-the-bottom-up blueprint.
“When you have layers of depth, you can create those waves of talent coming year after year, where you can have sustainable success and sustainable winning,” Hill said.
Many of the young prospects the Marlins have acquired through a series of high-profile trades over the previous year — Giancarlo Stanton to the Yankees, Marcelo Ozuna to the Cardinals, Christian Yelich to the Brewers, J.T. Realmuto to the Phillies and Dee Gordon to the Mariners — are among the 68 players in camp this spring.
The vast majority of them will start the season in the minors as they continue their development. But spring training usually yields surprises, and one or more could still be around for the March 28 season opener against the Rockies.
The coming five weeks will provide answers as the Marlins move forward.
Discounting injuries, some jobs are locked up.
Second baseman Starlin Castro, third baseman Brian Anderson and newly acquired catcher Jorge Alfaro will be in the Opening Day lineup. After that, it gets murky.
Curtis Granderson and Lewis Brinson figure to occupy two of the three outfield positions. But the third spot could go to Garrett Cooper, Austin Dean or Peter O’Brien.
Alfaro will be the primary catcher, replacing Realmuto. But the backup catcher involves either Bryan Holaday or Chad Wallach, with Holaday getting the edge based on his experience in that role.
First base is another position with questions. The Marlins signed veteran Neil Walker, who is expected to handle the bulk of the playing time at first. But the Marlins could also employ O’Brien and Cooper in a platoon situation.
Shortstop will be one of the key battles to watch this spring. Miguel Rojas assumed the starting role at short last season for a stretch. But that’s because J.T. Riddle was coming off shoulder surgery, delaying his return. Because Rojas can play multiple positions and Riddle only plays shortstop, it could complicate the decision for manager Don Mattingly.
Martin Prado, assuming he can overcome his recent injury issues, figures to be employed off the bench.
The Marlins have seven starting pitchers to fill five rotation spots: Jose Urena, Dan Straily, Wei-Yin Chen, Sandy Alcantara, Trevor Richards, Pablo Lopez and Caleb Smith.
Smith is returning from surgery, and the expectation is he will be brought back slowly. Hill didn’t discount the possibility that one of the starters is used out of the bullpen.
With the signing of veteran reliever Sergio Romo on Friday, the Marlins now have four certain bullpen pieces. Drew Steckenrider, Adam Conley and Tayron Guerrero are the others.
A host of candidates are contending for the four (or three) other bullpen spots, and the bullpen openings represent the most wide open battles this spring.
“There’s a lot to do,” Mattingly said of figuring out the Marlins’ 25-man roster. “There’s probably a lot of things we don’t know. It’s exciting to be able to get our eyes on some of our young guys. It should be a healthy competition to see what we have and how it’s going to unfold.”
For now, the Marlins are in a state of roster flux as the rebuild continues.
Over time, the roster will become more stable, with fewer spring battles.
“Eventually, you will get to that, where you’ll have players locked in who’ve taken control of a position,” Hill said. “But right now, when you’re talking about young, talented guys, they are still finding their way. But when a job is on the line, you expect to get the best version of everyone, and that’s what’s exciting.”