Just last season, James Rowson served a vital role in helping the Minnesota Twins make history as the hitting coach for a team that slugged out an MLB single-season record 307 home runs.
His next challenge: Figuring out how to tap into the power potential of a young Miami Marlins team, a group that finished last in the majors in 2019 with just 146 home runs.
Rowson will serve as the Marlins’ bench coach for 2020, but his expertise on the offensive side of the game will also play a vital role as he works alongside manager Don Mattingly — an offensive-minded person in his own right — in a pivotal third year of the franchise’s latest full-blown rebuild.
“We obviously have a passion and a love for hitting,” Rowson said Thursday, “so it’s easy to connect on that side.”
While the Marlins are expected to shore up their roster and add a middle-of-the-order hitter either through free agency or a trade, the core of the 2020 lineup will be centered around a group of on-the-rise players who they hope will see take the next step in their development.
Any sign of progress is needed for a team that finished last in MLB in slugging (.375), 29th in runs scored (615) and 25th in batting average (.241).
“I do believe the dial can turn really quick with young players,” Rowson said. “Once they get comfortable in knowing who they are, once they get comfortable in knowing what they do well, you see them relax and start producing a lot more consistently.”
A few players have already begun to make that leap.
Third baseman/right fielder Brian Anderson, 26, hit a career-high 20 home runs while batting .261 in 2019 before suffering a season-ending hand injury on Aug. 23.
Catcher Jorge Alfaro, 26, hit 18 homers in his first year with the Marlins, and 28-year-old first baseman Garrett Cooper hit 15 long balls in 107 games despite his share of injuries. No one else currently on the roster hit more than 11 last season.
Rowson plans to meet with players in person as the offseason progresses and into spring training to get a better feel about the club.
“I think it’s all about being the best version of yourself,” Rowson, 43, said. “You find so many hitters have different strengths. You have to find out what you do well. You have to be comfortable in your own skin and learning what you do well. Once you become more comfortable with that, you start to be the player you can be every day. If you try to manipulate and force things a certain way, you’re going to run into trouble.”
And Rowson has a knack for helping players reach their potential.
In addition to the home run mark, Rowson played part in the Twins scoring the second-most runs in baseball (939) while having the fourth-lowest strikeout rate in the league (21 percent).
Before his three-year stint in Minnesota, he spent two years as the Chicago Cubs’ hitting coach from 2012-2013 in between two stints as the New York Yankees’ minor-league hitting coach, most recently from 2014-2016.
“He’s had tremendous success as a hitting coach,” Marlins president of Baseball operations Michael Hill said, “but he’s going to be Donnie’s right-hand man as our bench coach with an offensive background. ... Without question, when you get a man of James’ experience and ability, you’re going to try to take advantage of the entire package, the entire person.”
And Rowson, through his time with the Yankees, also has close ties to CEO and part-owner Derek Jerer as well as director of player development and scouting Gary Denbo.
The Marlins have a top-five minor-league system and have some power-hitting prospects — namely outfielders Monte Harrison and Jesus Sanchez, shortstop Jazz Chisholm and first baseman Lewin Diaz — getting closer to making their MLB debuts at some point over the next two years. And that doesn’t begin to talk about outfielders JJ Bleday, Kameron Misner and Connor Scott obtained over the past two drafts who could make their major-league debuts in 2021 or 2022.
“You’re thinking about what the goal is and if everyone is driving in one direction. You feel that,” Rowson said. “I felt that in talking with everybody and understanding just to be part of this felt like it would be special. You knew where everybody was going. They’ve already started to build something special.”
The Marlins plan to announce the rest of their coaching staff for the 2020 season once the full staff is assembled.