Miguel Rojas had a unique role in leading the Miami Marlins to their 4-3 season-closing win over the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday.
Instead of stretching, batting practice and infield drills ahead of playing nine innings at his usual shortstop position, Rojas was analyzing lineup cards and bullpen strategies.
For one day at Citizens Bank Park, he became “Manager Miggy Ro.”
It’s a tradition Don Mattingly has held each of his four seasons in Miami. If the final game of the season has no impact on a playoff race, he allows one of his veterans to spend the day as the player-manager. Former Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto had the honor in 2018, A.J. Ellis in 2017 and Martin Prado in 2016.
Rojas, fresh off signing a two-year contract extension that keeps him with the Marlins through at least the 2021 season and has made him an unofficial face of the franchise, took the opportunity to heart.
“He took it serious,” said Marlins second baseman Starlin Castro, who served as Rojas’ bench coach. “He thought he was the manager for real. He made all the decisions.”
Some more personal than others.
The prime example: Putting Martin Prado second in the lineup, giving the 14-year veteran infielder who has battled with injuries for three seasons a chance to hit his 100th career home run in what was assuredly his final game in a Marlins uniform. Rojas took his friend and mentor out of the game in the bottom of the ninth to a standing ovation.
The two had been together with the Marlins for the better part of five seasons. Rojas, five-and-a-half years younger and with eight less years of MLB experience,
“As soon as you get to the big leagues, you have to start learning,” Rojas, 30, said. “Having him on my side since 2015 has been one of the biggest reasons I’m in the position I am now.”
Prado, in turn, watched as Rojas evolved into the player he is now. He saw his budding mentee morph from a quiet, late-inning defensive replacement and spot starter into an everyday player. He smiled with pride as he saw the respect his mentee commanded in a clubhouse filled with young players.
“It’s satisfaction,” Prado said. “There’s been a lot of players through my career where I would say something to them and they would not digest information. They would not keep it. They would not use it to impact their own career. But I think Miggy’s so smart, smart enough to digest any information that you tell him. Besides just digesting information, he applies what is told to him. He’s a sponge about learning the game. ... He’s always prepared in his mind for anything.”
Sunday epitomized and culminated Rojas’ journey to this point in his career.
He signed his first contract with the Cincinnati Reds organization as an international free agent out of Venezuela when he was 17. He spent eight-and-a-half years in the minor leagues before making his MLB debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2014.
Rojas played 85 games with the Dodgers that season before being traded to the Marlins that offseason in a package with Dee Gordon and Dan Haren in exchange for Andrew Heaney, Chris Hatcher, Austin Barnes, and Enrique “Kike” Hernández.
Rojas spent his first three seasons in Miami primarily as a bench player before becoming a utility infielder in 2018 and ultimately the team’s starting shortstop in 2019.
His strengths — namely his defensive prowess and his ability to play anywhere in the infield — allowed him to get his foot in the door. Fine-tuning his offense made sure he stayed there.
Rojas finished the 2019 season with a team-leading .284 batting average while setting career-high marks in slugging (.379), doubles (29), runs scored (52), walks (32) and stolen bases (nine).
“He’s always been a great defensive player and he continues to be,” said Mattingly, who has been Rojas’ manager since that 2014 season with the Dodgers, “but from the offensive side it’s like the perfect example of a guy that will continue to work, continue to get better, continue to strive. It makes me emotional because I’m so proud of him and what he’s been able to accomplish on that side of the ball, and who he’s become. There’s no better example of what kind of player that we want, how much better you can get.”
His impact is evident in the clubhouse, too. As the Marlins went through the trials and tribulations of a 100-plus-loss season — an expected consequence of their latest rebuild — he kept teammates upbeat, reminding them of the bigger picture.
He never wavered in his desire to see the rebuild through.
“Miggy’s committed,” CEO Derek Jeter said. “He’s committed to the South Florida community, he’s committed to the Marlins organization and he’s been very vocal about his desire to play the rest of his career here in Miami, so we appreciate everything that Miggy has done for the organization and what he will continue to do for the organization.”
The 2019 season is over, but Rojas’ work is just starting.
“I couldn’t be happier to have the security that I’m going to be here for two more years and meet with everybody in spring training and see the progress they’re going to make in the offseason,” Rojas said. “They have room for improvement. They will get better. We will get better.”