When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the operations of Major League Baseball in mid-March, Miami Marlins prospect and former Titusville Rocket JJ Bleday was left in limbo. Over the past few months, there was an uncomfortable uncertainty about the likelihood of a season being played in 2020 because of the tense negotiations between the MLBPA and the owners of the league, along with the threat of a virus resurgence.
Now, the skepticism has turned into excitement for fans and players alike as the action returns on diamonds across the country on July 23-24. For Bleday, the return of professional baseball is not only a reason to get excited but an opportunity to keep turning heads in the Marlins organization.
On Sunday, the Marlins, along with every other club in Major League Baseball, released the names of players deemed worthy of making their “Player Pools,” consisting of players who would be available to play in 2020 Major League contests. Bleday cracked Miami’s 57-man roster and will report to “Spring Training 2.0” on Wednesday in Jupiter, Florida.
Bleday is excited about making the cut, but is also driven to make an impact in his first “full” professional season with the club.
“The fact that they have confidence in you, and they’re giving you opportunities, you can’t take it for granted,” said Bleday, the Marlins’ top pick in the 2019 First-Year Player Draft. “You have to go out there and compete. At the end of the day, you still have to show them the progress you’ve made and how you’ve developed to keep on moving through the system.”
According to Marlins.com, 40 of the 57 players in the pool will begin training on Wednesday at Marlins Park, in Miami, while Bleday will be one of 17 players that will report to the club’s alternate training site in Jupiter that will serve as the complex for the prospects of the team. By Opening Day, MLB teams will have to trim their rosters to 30 before four additional players will be sent to minor league camp by the end of August.
Bleday, who has not yet been tested for the coronavirus, will undergo a physical and COVID-19 test on Thursday. If his test comes back negative after being self-quarantined for the next two days, he will take the field in Jupiter on Saturday. When asked if he was comfortable with the safety protocols in place, Bleday replied, “Absolutely!”
“They (explained the protocols), and you have your own hotel room,” Bleday explained. “You’re pretty much on your own, just going to and from the field and hunkering it down from there, just playing it safe just to make sure that you’re not in contact with anyone that may possess the virus. There will also be only four people at each training session, that way they’re abiding by the rules and the chances of obtaining the virus go down a lot. It’s a lot safer.”
Leading up to Sunday’s announcement, Bleday did his best to keep a steady routine at his home in Panama City over the quarantine period. For a while, he was conducting full-body workouts three times a week, along with putting work on the field five days of the week. About a month ago, he scaled back his regiment as the outlook of the season seemed grim, but he has recently ramped it back up so his “body is ready to go and compete on a daily basis.”
Bleday added that the quarantine presented unique challenges but gave credit to his brother, Adam, who is a coach in the Baltimore Orioles organization, for helping him overcome them.
“Staying motivated was the big key and just listening to your body,” Bleday said. “You want to make sure you’re motivated to get to the big leagues and still able to develop and produce results. Having my brother there throughout the process to maintain that was huge. Listening to your body is another (key), just so you’re not overdoing it and to make sure your fresh once you do get that call.”
As Bleday heads into camp this week, he wants to take advantage of the opportunity the Marlins have presented him. The outfielder is looking to become quicker in his defensive game, wanting to make sure his “breaks” on the ball are “great.” Offensively, the left-handed bat is looking to improve in “certain situations, especially 0-2 counts,” wanting to “put the ball in play and advance the situations.”
Although he only spent 2019 with the Marlins’ High-A affiliate of the Florida State League, the Jupiter Hammerheads, the new season provides some new routes for Bleday to crack the Major League roster. First and foremost, the designated hitter will be in play for both leagues in 2020, giving one more spot in the lineup to a position player. Also, a three-player “taxi squad” will be permitted to travel with the team on road trips to provide an immediate replacement in case of an injury or positive COVID-19 result of a teammate.
Bleday believes the adoption of the DH in the National League, along with the new rule that permits extra innings beginning with a runner on second base, are “good for the game.”
“It’s going to really save bodies and allow more players, such as myself, to get an opportunity to make it,” Bleday said of the new DH rule. “It’s good for pitchers because the risk of injury goes down. It allows the league to try it out and see if they like it and if they want to go forward with it.”
Despite all of the changes and the twists and turns that the pandemic has caused, Bleday believes the Marlins organization has done a “great job.” According a May 27 article in the Miami Herald, the Marlins committed to paying their minor league players through the end of August despite only being mandated by MLB to pay them through May 31 at that time. The payments through August nearly cover the typical length of the regular season of Minor League Baseball.
“I think the Marlins have done a great job of helping guys out to make sure they financially can make it through this and to come back and still play baseball games,” said Bleday, the No. 2 Marlins’ prospect according to MLB.com. “The other thing is that they’ve kept in touch with us. (Although) the majority of them have also been in the dark, whenever they get a piece of information, they give it to us to make sure we’re still in shape and get out there and do our training to make sure that we are ready to go. It’s just been great communication and they’ve handled it really well.”
Business and pandemic aside, Bleday is ready for the change of pace of getting back on the field. 2020 may bring an unusual season, but it also brings the sense of normalcy of having America’s pastime occur over the summer months.
“I’m just excited to see (my teammates), talk to them and get that camaraderie back, but also to compete with one another to make each other better to have a good end result and end goal of developing and getting better as a player,” Bleday said. “It just changes it up from doing the same thing we’ve all been doing throughout quarantine. It gives you a sense of purpose.”