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Young Marlins make the most of 1st spring game

@JoeFrisaro
February 22, 2020

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Outfield prospect JJ Bleday, who last year was on his way to winning a national title at Vanderbilt, was caught off guard when he learned he was in the starting lineup on Saturday for the club’s first Grapefruit League game. What followed wasn’t all that

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Outfield prospect JJ Bleday, who last year was on his way to winning a national title at Vanderbilt, was caught off guard when he learned he was in the starting lineup on Saturday for the club’s first Grapefruit League game.

What followed wasn’t all that shocking for those who have followed his career. In his first at-bat, off Mets lefty Chasen Shreve, the 22-year-old grinded out a full count before lacing a single to right.

“First off, having that opportunity was crazy,” Bleday said. “I didn’t think [a start] would be the first game of Spring Training, let alone in big league camp.”

Saturday was a standout day for several of the Marlins’ prospects in the club's 5-3 win at Clover Park.

Ranked by MLB Pipeline as Miami’s No. 2 prospect last season, Bleday opened the game in right field. He was replaced after two at-bats and the one single. His replacement was Jerar Encarnacion, the Marlins’ No. 17 prospect in 2019.

Encarnacion blasted an opposite-field home run in the ninth inning.

Second baseman Jose Devers, the club’s No. 10 prospect in 2019, is the youngest player in Marlins’ camp. The left-handed-hitting infielder, who turned 20 in December, entered in the fifth inning and went hitless in two at-bats, but he showed great instincts and awareness on a rundown play between third and home. He dashed from second base to enter the rundown and applied the tag on Jake Marisnick.

It was the first big league spring game for Bleday, Encarnacion and Devers.

“Obviously, this is the part of camp you get a chance to see a lot of your [young] guys,” manager Don Mattingly said. “Getting them on the field, in this environment, it’s really good for them. It’s good for us as an organization to see it. To see how they react, and you just kind of watch it.”

The situation was ripe for the Marlins to go with their prospects, with the club opening on the road. They are home on Sunday against the Nationals, and many of the veterans, who didn't make the trip to Port St. Lucie, are scheduled to play then.

Bleday paced the NCAA in home runs last year, with 27, and was selected fourth overall in the 2019 MLB Draft. He projects to start the season at either at Class A Advanced Jupiter or Double-A Jacksonville.

Facing Shreve was a good first test for Bleday, who has 218 games of big league experience; his single was off a 91-mph fastball.

“Sticking to your pitch,” he said of his strategy. “Sticking to your game plan, and not trying to rush mechanics, and keeping that approach. I didn’t see a lefty leading up to the game. It was nice to finally get to see one.”

Encarnacion also could be at Jacksonville, or perhaps Triple-A Wichita. His power potential is well known within the organization. A year ago he split time between Class A Clinton and Jupiter, belting 16 homers and driving in 71 runs. He belted a grand slam in the Arizona Fall League championship game.

He has power to all fields, so going deep to right-center on a windy afternoon wasn’t shocking.

“It’s always been something that I’ve worked on, but it’s something that I feel has always come natural to me,” Encarnacion said through an interpreter. “I’ve always been guiding myself to right field, the whole time.”

As for Devers, he could reach Double-A Jacksonville early in 2020.

“I felt very relaxed. It’s a great opportunity for me,” Devers said through an interpreter. “I was told, if the shortstop doesn’t go in, I should just jump into the play, and follow up, and get the out.”

Joe Frisaro has covered the Marlins for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @JoeFrisaro and listen to his podcast.