It’s an exciting time to be with the Miami Marlins, who are battling the Atlanta Braves for first place in the National League East.
Derek Dietrich has been the Marlins’ main starting second baseman this season, but he’s not with them now. He was optioned to the Zephyrs, Miami’s Triple-A affiliate, on Wednesday. He arrived Friday and played his first game Saturday.
“(The Marlins) are a fun team to play on — definitely different from last year,” he said. “We’re in every game; our record shows it. We’re back and forth for first place.”
Sent down mostly to work on his defense, Dietrich, 24, is disappointed but said he’s looking at it as a great opportunity, a tune-up for his total game. A left-handed hitter, he started 41 of 61 games for Miami, playing mostly against right-handed pitchers.
“I know I’m going to have a chance to play every single day here, against righties and lefties, and just get into a rhythm of just grinding and playing every day,” said Dietrich, who batted second in the lineup and hit .246 with five home runs, five doubles, 16 RBIs and 27 runs. “That’s the key — just refine my skills and continue to be consistent and be ready when they need me.”
Zephyrs manager Andy Haines said Dietrich needed a confidence boost.
“They told me his at-bats had been sporadic and that he got into a bit of a rut defensively,” Haines said.
“And the major leagues is no place to play your way out of a rut.”
Dietrich has made seven errors at second base this season, which was tied for most in the NL when he was sent down. Those came in 162 chances in 296.1 innings. Last season, in 258 chances spanning 502.1 innings, he had just two.
“I had a tough start to the season, so most of those were early,” he said.
To Marlins management, Dietrich’s dependability became an issue. The team signed Rafael Furcal, 36, and then Miguel Tejada, 40, “as veteran insurance” said Marty Scott, the team’s vice president for player development.
So, there was Dietrich before Saturday’s game at Zephyr Field, taking grounders from Haines at a rate that suggested this was spring training.
Haines said it was time to get back to basics. The Marlins, he said, crediting fielding instructor Perry Hill, have one of the best programs in the league for developing infielders and keeping them sharp.
“We’ve got a good routine we’ll do every day,” Haines said. “It’s a six-step program that’s very detailed.”
Those six steps: feet, field, tunnel (the ball into your body), footwork, throw and follow through.
“We actually go so far as to put marks on the ground that have to do with where you play for right-handed hitters, for left-handed hitters,” Haines said.
During the pregame workout, it appeared his footwork may need a little work. Dietrich fields the ball, turns his body and leans back to make throws without moving his feet. Converted from shortstop, Dietrich said fundamentals are just part of it. He had been pressing with the big league team.
“I’d say the errors came from just rushing a little bit,” he said. “I need to slow the game down defensively and just be in the right position. I think playing every day and getting into a routine with my work will solidify that because I played great defense for the club last year, and I know I’m capable of playing Gold Glove defense.”
Against the Round Rock Express on Saturday, he appeared relaxed at the plate, going 2-for-4. He homered in his second at-bat, a two-run shot during a five-run fourth inning that paved the way for an 8-2 victory. He homered again Sunday, a clout that went halfway up the levee behind the center-field wall.
He said it feels good to get off to a strong start. And he feels no extra pressure despite reports that Furcal, who’s battling a lingering hamstring injury, may soon end his rehab stint with Double-A Jacksonville and join the Marlins.
“All I can control is what I do and how hard I work and how hard I play,” Dietrich said. “Nothing’s going to change on my end. I’m still a young player, and I’ve got a lot of time.”
This time with Dietrich, Haines said, is one he’s relishing. When Haines was managing Single-A Jupiter in 2010, his teams often faced Dietrich and Charlotte in the Florida State League. The Marlins obtained him in a trade with Tampa Bay in 2012.
“He’s got everything you want in a second baseman,” Haines said. “He’s a really good defensive player, a left-handed hitter with some power, plays hard, loves to play.”
Dietrich said he felt he brought a lot to the Marlins lineup.
“I was definitely a catalyst at the top of the lineup, getting on base, scoring runs,” he said. “I’m just thinking getting quality at-bats and getting on base, playing solid defense, bringing that energy and intensity every day.”