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Notes: Villar in CF, Dugger still scoreless

Alfaro (oblique) scratched; touted prospect Sánchez easing back
@JoeFrisaro
February 27, 2020

JUPITER, Fla. -- The anticipated center-field debut of Jonathan Villar for the Marlins took place on Thursday night, and it didn’t take long for the 28-year-old to see some action. Two batters into the first inning, and Mets outfielder Michael Conforto lifted a lazy fly ball to center, a routine

JUPITER, Fla. -- The anticipated center-field debut of Jonathan Villar for the Marlins took place on Thursday night, and it didn’t take long for the 28-year-old to see some action.

Two batters into the first inning, and Mets outfielder Michael Conforto lifted a lazy fly ball to center, a routine play that Villar drifted easily to for the out. One batter later, Pete Alonso blistered a double to center. Villar ran it down and threw the ball back to the infield.

“That’s my first day,” Villar said. “I played only four innings.”

For the Marlins in their quest to secure center field, Thursday's 3-1 win over the Mets at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium was a starting point for Villar at a new position. The Marlins also improved to 6-0 in Grapefruit League play.

"There wasn't really any tough plays," Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. "I just wanted to keep him to a minimum today. Four innings, I felt like that was enough the first time out."

Villar noted that there is an adjustment period being in center when he steps to bat, where he’s been leading off. He said that he may need to speed things up to give himself enough time to get his shin guard on and get ready to hit.

“That’s my first day,” Villar said. “Maybe next time, I’ll need to [run in] faster to prepare myself.”

Villar last played center in the Majors in 2017, and he has just eight games of experience there over his career and 13 total in the outfield.

“The No. 1 thing with Jonathan in center is, we weren’t going to put him out there until he was feeling comfortable,” Mattingly said.

Villar, mostly a career middle infielder, is being tested in center out of necessity. Without a clear front-runner at the position, the Marlins are giving Villar a shot to see if he can handle the role. Mainly, Miami wants Villar’s switch-hitting bat in the lineup, particularly after he stole 40 bases in 2019 with the Orioles.

“We want him to be able to do his drill work and outfield work, along with infield stuff,” Mattingly said. “I want him to be comfortable. I don’t want to embarrass anybody. I don’t want him embarrassed. There’s going to be some process to this."

Making his case

Getting a taste of the Majors last year has given right-hander Robert Dugger more of an indication of what he needs to do to stick with the big league club. Foremost, he needs to throw strikes -- and he’s done just that in his first two Grapefruit League appearances. Dugger threw 2 2/3 shutout innings on Thursday with four strikeouts and a walk. He’s now thrown 4 2/3 shutout innings in two Spring Training outings.

Dugger is in the mix with Jordan Yamamoto, Elieser Hernandez and Nick Neidert for the Marlins' fifth rotation spot.

“That’s the plan this year, not nitpicking corners and trying to place balls,” Dugger said. “I’m just trying to attack the hitter, get early outs, early swings. It’s working out so far.”

Dugger threw 34 1/3 Major League innings in seven starts last year, going 0-4 with a 5.77 ERA. He added 23 starts in the Minors with a 5.15 ERA. In camp, he’s striving to make the Marlins’ roster decision a tough one.

“There’s only so much you can control,” Dugger said. “I’m going to go out there, play my game, do my thing, do the best I can and whatever happens, happens.”

Alfaro scratched

Catcher Jorge Alfaro was scratched from Thursday's starting lineup due to a tight left oblique, with Ryan Lavarnway taking his place.

"He felt it swinging in the cage," Mattingly said of Alfaro. "He felt something. We feel like it's slight, but it's not something we're going to test at this point."

The club is hopeful that Alfaro will return in a few days. He is regarded as the front-runner to earn the starting job. In two Grapefruit League games, the 25-year-old is 0-for-5. Alfaro is in his second season with the Marlins. In 2019, he played in 130 games and hit .262/.312/.425 with 18 homers and 57 RBIs.

The Marlins anticipate dividing playing time among Alfaro and Francisco Cervelli. Chad Wallach in the third catcher on the 40-man roster, and he is expected to open the season at Triple-A Wichita. Lavarnway is a non-roster invitee.

Jesús Sánchez back

Outfield prospect Jesús Sánchez, who underwent hernia surgery in the offseason, is being eased into game action. The 22-year-old left-handed-hitting outfielder was acquired by Miami last July 31 from the Rays as part of the Nick Anderson trade.

Sánchez slashed .260/.325/.398 with 13 homers and 63 RBIs in 113 combined Minor League games last year, including 17 at Triple-A after he was acquired.

“We’ve been slowly building him up,” Mattingly said. “He’s been doing everything. They wanted to get him up to game speed. His schedule was a few games behind. Now we can get a look at him.”

Sánchez was ranked by MLB Pipeline as Miami’s No. 3 prospect last season. He’s most comfortable in right field, and Mattingly intends to work him mostly in that spot.

Up next

The Marlins follow up their night game with a 1:05 p.m. ET game against the Astros on Friday at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium. Left-hander Caleb Smith, projected as a top-of-the-rotation candidate, will make his first Grapefruit League start, against Houston's Zack Greinke.

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