MESA, Ariz. -- Just a week ago, JJ Bleday was fully prepared to enter Spring Training with the Marlins, competing for a spot on their roster, when a phone call flipped his life upside down.
A few hours after taking part in Marlins FanFest last Saturday, Bleday flew to Nashville for his engagement celebration. While attending an alumni banquet for Vanderbilt that also took place that evening, Bleday received a call from Miami general manager Kim Ng informing him that he’d been traded to Oakland in exchange for left-hander A.J. Puk.
“They made me go to FanFest and then axed me,” Bleday said with a laugh. “It was definitely a blindside. Definitely a little sense of bitterness at first.”
It was certainly reasonable for the move to come as a shock. When a team invests as much in a player as Miami did with Bleday, selecting him fourth overall in the 2019 MLB Draft, the expectation is that the player can one day develop into a franchise-altering talent.
In Bleday’s mind, the Marlins trading him away after only three years in the organization sent a clear message that they were essentially giving up on him rather quickly.
“No more opportunities,” Bleday said. “[The Marlins] told me that was their set roster. That was the kind of vibe I got from that. It’s a business. I understand.”
After taking a few days to let the news sink in, Bleday packed his bags and boarded a flight from Florida to Phoenix. Getting in on Thursday night, he arrived at A’s Spring Training on Friday morning, three days ahead of the scheduled report date for all position players. Upon arrival to the clubhouse at Hohokam Stadium, Shea Langeliers, Jonah Bride, Conner Capel and Logan Davidson were among those Bleday recognized as players he either played with or against in the past.
While the outfield picture with the Marlins was set, that situation with the A’s is a bit more open. Seth Brown and Ramón Laureano are expected to be regulars in Oakland’s outfield this season. After that, center field and possibly a fourth outfield spot are up for grabs.
“I’m really happy to be here,” Bleday said. “I think it’s going to be a good fit and an exciting opportunity.”
Helping Bleday’s chances of landing an Opening Day roster spot is his versatility. Though he played mostly center field in his first call to the big leagues with Miami last year, Bleday said he is most comfortable in the corners, particularly right field, where he played regularly in college as a standout at Vanderbilt.
From the A’s perspective, Bleday, who ranked as baseball's No. 20 overall prospect in 2021, per MLB Pipeline, enters the organization with a legitimate chance to break camp with the big league club. The 25-year-old outfielder's competition includes another newcomer in Esteury Ruiz, as well as Capel and Cristian Pache, who comes into spring out of Minor League options.
“We’ve talked to the Marlins about [Bleday] a number of times over the past 12 months,” said A’s general manager David Forst. “Really like the power and there is elite plate discipline there. The guy walked 90 times last year between Triple-A and the big leagues, which is not an easy thing to do anymore.”
Getting a taste of big league action in '22, Bleday admitted that the talent gap between Triple-A and the Majors was larger than he anticipated. Appearing in 65 games for the Marlins, he slashed .167/.277/.309 with five home runs, 10 doubles and 16 RBIs.
“It’s humbling, man,” Bleday said. “It’s a very humbling game, especially at the big league level. There were some things in the big leagues I was doing mechanically that I probably shouldn’t have been doing. Things you’re really unaware of, but you have no time to work on because you’re playing every single day. There’s 95 [mph] plus on the mound every night, and it’s a relentless league.
“That’s one thing I learned. There’s someone coming for your throat every day, and you have to be prepared and ready for it.”
Among those mechanical flaws Bleday identified from last season is a tendency to drop his hands at the plate, an issue he said has crept up in the past. Addressing those flaws in his offseason work, Bleday will look to parlay his fresh start into a Major League opportunity with the A’s.
“I’ve made some adjustments and I feel really good,” Bleday said. “This is the best I’ve felt since college going into a season. Last year, when I went to the big leagues, I was missing [fastballs]. I was getting in great counts and just fouling off. The main emphasis is hit the heater this year. Dominate that in your work. Hit off the machine and take that into games.”