JUPITER, Fla. — Miguel Rojas had just graduated from high school in Venezuela when he approached his parents about his future.
Rojas made it clear that he wanted to play baseball. Scouts were showing interest. Rojas felt he could make it at the professional level. He just needed the opportunity to show what he could do.
The 16-year-old’s plea: Give me one year. Give me a chance to live out my dream and see if a contract comes out of it.
The plan easily could have backfired. In 12 months, if he didn’t have a contract, he very well might have given up the sport.
“I put everything that I had on baseball,” Rojas said.
Almost 15 years later, here Rojas stands. The 30-year-old infielder is heading into his 14th season of professional baseball, his sixth year in the majors, his fifth with the Marlins, his second as an everyday starter and potentially his first as an everyday shortstop.
Rojas has the makeup of a player and has taken the journey the Marlins hope their young roster can learn from.
He scratched and clawed his way to where he is now. He labored his way through the minor leagues for eight and a half years before getting a call up. He utilized his strengths — namely his defensive prowess and his ability to play anywhere in the infield — to get a foot in the door at the major-league level and then began fine-tuning his offense to make sure he stayed there.
And now, after a year of learning what it’s like to be a full-time starter and with a strong spring training under his belt, Rojas has the chance to take the next step of his baseball career.
“You just have a lot of respect for that,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “A lot of guys have to work hard to get there, but it’s just the whole package with Miggy. The game awareness. During the course of the game he’s always talking. He’s always involved. He’s always trying to pick up on whatever we’re doing. He’s always there. His mind’s always working. It’s nice having him on the field.”
Mattingly has seen Rojas’ evolution from the start. As the Los Angeles Dodgers’ manager in 2014, Mattingly gave Rojas his first opportunity at the MLB level, calling him up midway through the season to primarily be a late-inning defensive replacement.
Rojas played 85 games with the Dodgers before being traded to the Marlins that offseason in a package with Dee Gordon and Dan Haren in exchange for Andrew Heaney, Chris Hatcher, Austin Barnes, and Enrique “Kike” Hernandez.
Rojas and Mattingly reunited two years later when Mattingly became the Marlins’ manager ahead of the 2017 season.
By that point, Rojas offense had begun to catch up with his defense. The numbers at the plate tracked up with his playing time.
It culminated last year with Rojas receiving his first chance to be an everyday starter. He started 125 games, splitting time at all four infield spots (78 starts at shortstop; 34 at third base; eight at second base; five at first base). He hit 11 home runs in 2018 after totaling just four during his first four years. He set career highs with 123 hits and 53 RBIs while committing just four errors in the field.
“Playing every day last year was so important to me because I didn’t have that opportunity before,” Rojas said. “I feel the numbers came all around last year because I was able to play. For me, that’s a big factor. Hopefully, I can do it again this year.”
The success has translated into spring training. After playing winter ball back in Venezuela, Rojas came into spring a step ahead. The results have shown, with him hitting .469 (15 for 32) in 13 games with a pair of doubles, five RBIs and five multihit outings as he competes with JT Riddle to be the Marlins’ starting shortstop.
“He just continues to evolve as a player, and that’s really what you ask,” Mattingly said. “You ask guys to continue to get better. Miggy is the epitome of that.”
The evolution has also taken place off the field, with Rojas making it an emphasis this spring to serve as a mentor to the Marlins’ younger players and prospects. He knows what it’s like to be in their shoes — being a player on the fringe of making it to the big leagues — and wants them to feel comfortable as early as possible.
That’s why he will crack a random joke in the clubhouse to lighten up the mood.
He’s the one who can trot to the mound to calm down a top pitching prospect such as Nick Neidert after a spring training start begins to unravel in the first inning.
He even helped organized a clubhouse Ping-Pong tournament to build camaraderie during downtime as the Marlins hit the spring. That one might be working to Rojas’ advantage, though, considering he played Ping-Pong most of his life.
“He’s a good teammate,” third baseman Brian Anderson said. “He’s always out there talking and helping other guys out. It’s good to have a guy like that next to you.”
A guy who took the long road to the majors. A guy who bet on himself to make his dream a reality.
And a guy ready to take the next step in his career.
“There are a lot of ways that you can look at it, but my point of emphasis is that I was given an opportunity and I tried to make the best of it,” Rojas said. “If I end up being an everyday shortstop, great. But if I have to stay with my path play every position but it means I’m playing every day, that’s going to be my goal. My goal is to be out on that field, helping this team win.”