Bleday ready to join Marlins youth movement

October 2nd, 2020

The greatest player in Marlins history, Giancarlo Stanton, made four All-Star teams as a right fielder. The franchise's first superstar, Gary Sheffield, played right field. Future first-ballot Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera spent his first full season in Miami as a right fielder.

Since trading Stanton to the Yankees following his 59-homer season in 2017, the Marlins have endured baseball's third-worst production from right fielders. Despite making the playoffs, they ranked dead last with a .186/.271/.263 batting line and just three homers in 2020.

Right field should return to a position of strength for Miami in the very near future, however. JJ Bleday, the fourth overall pick in the 2019 Draft, didn't get to play in any games this summer but stood out at the club's alternative site in Jupiter, Fla.. He could arrive at Marlins Park as early as next year at age 23.

"He brings a combination of athleticism, hitting ability and potential for power that is very hard to find," Marlins vice president of player development and scouting Gary Denbo said.

Bleday, the Marlins' No. 2 prospect and No. 24 overall, starred at Vanderbilt, where he quickly earned a starting job as a freshman in 2017 and led the team in hitting (.368) as a sophomore while battling an oblique injury. He totaled just six home runs in his first two seasons but began tapping into his power during the summer of 2018, when he hit .311/.374/.500 with wood bats in the Cape Cod League and scouts rated him the top prospect in the elite developmental circuit.

Bleday exploded as a junior, batting .347/.465/.701 and leading NCAA Division I in home runs (27) and total bases (192) as the Commodores won the 2019 College World Series. He helped his cause with the Marlins by going 5-for-5 against Auburn at the Southeastern Conference tournament in front of CEO Derek Jeter and Denbo. Miami scouting director D.J. Svihlik also happened to have been Bleday's hitting coach during his freshman season at Vanderbilt.

"I developed a relationship with him my freshman year as a hitting coach," Bleday said. "He was the one giving me advice to create a better path for myself, which was 'hey, just stick to your hitting and your power is going to come naturally.'

"Then to be able to meet up with him and come around full circle junior year, to have him try and scout me and potentially pick me in the Draft was huge. That relationship aspect was nice because there's no BS, you can just be straight up with him and tell him what it is you want in pro baseball and your career."

After the Marlins signed Bleday for $6.67 million, they immediately challenged him with an assignment to high Class A for his pro debut. He batted .257/.311/.379 with three homers in 38 games there, then went 3-for-13 in big league camp this spring and was ticketed to begin his first full season in Double-A. When the coronavirus shut down Spring Training and scuttled the Minor League season, he headed home to Panama City, Fla.

During his downtime, Bleday tried to hit and throw at least five days a week and work out as much as he could. There weren't any pro pitchers to face, though he did hit against his older brother Adam, who pitched two seasons in the Minors and currently coaches in the Orioles system. He also fit in an online English class at Vanderbilt to get himself closer to his sociology degree.

Bleday rejoined the Marlins for Summer Camp in June and worked with their alternative-camp squad during the big league season before moving into their instructional league program. His prowess at the plate stood out, which was no surprise, but club officials also praised his diligence during his layoff that led to better athleticism. He has gotten quicker since signing and is getting better jumps and reads on the bases and in the outfield.

"He toned up and was impressive with his athleticism, speed and agility," Miami special assistant for player development and scouting Geoff DeGroot said. "He's got the hit and power combination we all love to see. He has a great understanding of his swing and knows where his power comes from. He's really advanced beyond his years."

While Bleday's first full pro season didn't unfold at all like he could have expected, he still believes he has been able to improve his game. At the plate at the alternative site, he focused on sticking to his approach and being on time with his left-handed swing. He also worked on getting more aggressive on the bases, a point of emphasis for the Marlins, and refining his defense while seeing time at all three outfield positions.

"I feel like I've gotten a lot better," Bleday said. "That's the main thing. Some days get a little bit monotonous, but the discipline has got to take over for the motivation factor. And I think that's when you really find out about yourself and how badly you want to make it to the big leagues and how badly you want to improve as a player."

One of the benefits that came from alternative camp was getting to face a steady stream of big league pitchers, something Bleday wouldn't have seen in Double-A. He didn't get true game experience, but he faced several arms who helped the Marlins end their 17-year playoff drought.

Even better days lie ahead for an organization that has built one of baseball's best farm systems, and Bleday is looking forward to being part of that resurgence.

"You're looking around and you're facing some good dudes on a daily basis at the alternative training site. I remember the last time I faced Sixto Sanchez before he got called up, and he was hitting 98 to 100 with stupid run on his two-seam, great slider, perfect changeup. And then you got guys like Trevor Rogers, Dan Castano, Braxton Garrett.

"It's just an endless list of talented guys who are going to produce for this team and that are going to get you better in the process of getting you to the big league team. I'd say the amount of opportunity that everyone's getting is huge for this organization. They're playing it aggressive. They want to win and I think Derek Jeter, [president of baseball operations] Michael Hill and the whole staff just really define that culture. It's definitely heading in the right direction."