In past years, high school draftees -- especially ones with strong college commitments -- would wait until the last minute to sign at the deadline in mid-August. Luckily for the Marlins and fourth-round pick Austin Dean, the rules changed in 2012.
In the past, Dean might have waited for Aug. 15 to decide whether to sign or go to the University of Texas, but the prepster from the Lone Star State did not delay, signing just days after the Draft for just a touch over the signing bonus value of pick No. 137.
The result was that Dean got 47 games and 148 at-bats in the Gulf Coast League under his belt before attending the Marlins' shortened instructional league session. Dean, ranked No. 16 on the Marlins' Top 20 Prospects list, is the first to admit that he is way ahead of where he might have been had his Draft year occurred before the rules changes.
"Honestly, the kids who signed at the last minute, they'd play for three weeks maybe?" Dean said. "I got a little bit of what it'll be like next year. Being out there for three months, being by myself, I benefited from signing early and playing a whole season.
"The first couple of weeks I was homesick, but I just got myself into a routine every day. I'm already ready for Spring Training and next season."
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While his production during his pro debut doesn't jump off the page -- a .223/.337/.338 line -- Dean was able to begin work on developing his offensive approach in the GCL. That continued in earnest at the instructional league, where Dean was able to reap the benefits of more individual attention. As a result, he was one of the stars of the recently-concluded Marlins' camp.
"Our version of [the instructional league] went for 15 days," Marlins farm director Brian Chattin said. "The Cardinals and Mets held camp at the same time, so we got a fair amount of games in as well.
"[Dean] made some development strides, which is what you hope for your guys when they're in instructional league, to work on some of the deficiencies in their game."
During his pro debut, it became evident to the Marlins that Dean's approach wasn't allowing him to tap into the raw power he clearly had. He was losing his balance because of some issues with his lower half, so he wasn't able to take advantage of his above-average bat speed. But by the time he left camp, the Marlins feel pretty confident that Dean is headed in the right direction offensively.
"He made some strides during the season, and here in camp, we think he got to a comfortable spot," Chattin said. "His balance improved and his hands worked better as a result. He showed consistent hard contact in game action. You could tell he was very confident in his approach at the plate. We're happy with where we left things when camp ended."
Dean credits the extra work he was able to get in with hitting coordinator Barry Moss for the improvement. Not only did they work on his lower half, so he could use his quick hands, they also talked about not over-thinking while at the plate.
"They sat me down and detailed everything I need to do," Dean said. "The cage work all day helped it improve a lot."
It's not just Dean's offensive game that made strides. An infielder in high school, Dean has played the outfield exclusively as a pro to date. He played all three outfield positions in the GCL, and the Marlins feel Dean is athletic enough right now to warrant a look in center. As he physically matures, he could end up in an outfield corner or maybe even back in the infield as a first baseman, but for now, he's preparing for life in the outfield full-time in 2013.
"I'd never played the outfield before," Dean said. "Having the transition was a huge jump. I didn't go in there with any knowledge with what to do. Throughout the season, I picked it up more and more and had my teammates help me out. There's not a lot of action, but going into [the instructional league], I improved a lot. I worked hard, listened to what our outfield coordinator told me to do.
"That's going to be a priority, working on the outfield and getting more comfortable out there."
It's clear that the work needed to succeed isn't something that scares Dean away. He enjoyed his time at the instructional league and knows exactly what he needs to do to be ready for what lies ahead."When I first started, I didn't get a lot of work in," Dean said. "We didn't have time to, we were getting ready for the season. That first game, I felt a lot of pressure, going from high [school] to the pro game. It's a big jump. I think I handled it well. [The instructional league] was fun for me, though, it was a grind and I worked my butt off.
"This is a job now and you have to treat it that way. I love baseball and that's why I'm out here. Anything I can do to get better and reach the ultimate goal, I'm going to do it. I don't want anything to stop me from playing."
Lopez handles transition well
Shortstop Javier Lopez is another prospect who made a very good impression during the instructional league, and he did so during his first trip to the United States as an international signee out of the Dominican Republic.
"Sometimes guys come in and can be overwhelmed by it," Chattin said. "[Lopez] was not at all. He let his abilities show. He wasn't passive, he was very aggressive on the field. He showed above-average arm strength and some good raw power. He's not very strong, but he has a very projectable body.
"He showed an ability to drive the ball. He hit a ball out to left field in St. Lucie. He'll come to the States next year and see where it takes him. He acted liked he belonged."