JUPITER, Fla. – Miami manager Don Mattingly believes Jonathan Villar’s move to center field is progressing nicely.
Villar isn’t so sure.
“Hopefully I will be more comfortable when we start that first day,” Villar said.
An offseason trade brought Villar, a second baseman last season, from Baltimore to Miami. A perceived glut of middle infielders prompted the Marlins to try to convert the athletic Villar into an outfielder.
“We feel good about it,” Mattingly said.
Villar has only played center field eight times during his seven-year career, most recently in 2017 with Milwaukee. He’s primarily been a middle infielder, but also has major league experience at third base and left field.
Miguel Rojas is entrenched at shortstop and the Marlins expect prospect Isan Diaz to make the full-time transition to the majors this season.
Villar arrived at Marlins camp four days early to begin working on outfield drills with first base/outfielders coach Billy Hatcher. Mattingly sees improvement on Villar’s reads and likes his arm strength.
“He looks like a center fielder, right?” Mattingly said. “For us, I don’t know if he feels it, but we see a lot of progress. We’re happy with where he’s at.”
Villar’s biggest challenge in the field thus far have been line drives hit right at him.
“The coaches told me, before two strikes the ball (sails),” Villar said. “With two strikes you need to be coming in because if they hit a line drive the ball will be coming down.”
Villar is also encountering an obstacle he didn’t expect. The first-inning switch from defense to offense when the Marlins are the home team leaves little time for mental preparation for his first at-bat of the game.
“I’m the leadoff hitter,” Villar said. “And when we make three outs we need to run to the dugout hard because I need put on my shin guard, my batting gloves and everything.”
While Villar is exclusively playing center field during games, he is still taking infield drills on the Marlins’ back fields before games. He expects to play the infield at times this season.
Diaz’s poor spring performance may eventually render the Villar’s spring in center moot. The 23-year-old has only three hits in 26 exhibition at-bats, a .115 average, with eight strikeouts. That’s on the heels of hitting .173 with five homers in 201 plate appearances last season.
Mattingly insists he’s witnessed better swings and overall at-bats from Diaz recently.
Strong springs from center fielders Monte Harrison (.400 average, six steals) and Lewis Brinson (.370, three homers and only three strikeouts), both of whom, along with Diaz, came to the Marlins in the Christian Yelich trade, could influence Villar’s position come opening day.
“Obviously there’s a lot of factors in how you move guys around,” Mattingly said.
Villar was one of five players to play in all 162 games last season, hitting 24 homers with 73 RBIs, both career highs, while batting .273 and stealing 40 bases. This spring he’s hitting .240 with two homers and four steals.
No matter which position he plays in the field, he plans to keep running.
“I’m not scared to run the bases,” Villar said. “That’s my game right there.”
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