‘I bought in’: How Miguel Rojas became Marlins’ glue guy through teardown, rebuild, playoff run

To reach the playoffs for the first time since 2003, the Miami Marlins needed extraordinary forces on their side.

Three rosters, for starters: The group that started the year in Philadelphia, followed by an 18-man replacement squad after the novel coronavirus ravaged the team, and finally an amalgam of the two that guided the club to a 31-29 finish and a first-round date beginning Wednesday at Wrigley Field against the Chicago Cubs.

They needed the veteran sensibilities of manager Don Mattingly, whose fiery oratory in the wake of their COVID-19 outbreak stoked the remaining players to five consecutive wins after a one-week pause.

They certainly needed the resources of a revamped front office that, under new CEO and part owner Derek Jeter, managed to keep this unprecedented season pointed toward prosperity.

And perhaps above all, they needed Miguel Rojas.

Every lost cause has its beacon, and for the Marlins, it came in the form of a decent-hitting but unspectacular infielder who saw a busload of cornerstones – Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and J.T.  Realmuto – traded to greener pastures as an ownership change created massive turnover.

Marlins shortstop Miguel Rojas batted .304 and produced an .888 OPS this season. (Photo: Jasen Vinlove, USA TODAY Sports)

Who wants to be a Marlin?

Right now, it’s a pretty chic place to be, now that budding aces like Sandy Alcantara and Sixto Sanchez have arrived and the squad survived 28 games over 24 days and that awful viral outbreak to reach the doorstep of October baseball.

But it was a long road from the winter of 2017, when Jeter and owner Bruce Sherman took over and tore down, to Wrigley Field on Wednesday afternoon.

It was clear who the glue guy was going to be.

“He’s taken on a leadership role in the clubhouse, he’s taken on a leadership role in the community, in the media,” says Jeter of Rojas, now 31 and coming off a 40-game season in which he batted .304 and produced an .888 OPS. “Since we took over three years ago, I’ve had plenty of conversations with Miggy. He’s been very vocal about the fact he wanted to be with this organization, because he trusted what we were going to do and what we are doing.

“When you have players like that, who are your best players, believing what you’re going to do, it goes a long way in that clubhouse. Miggy wants to be here and there’s a reason he is.”

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Rojas and third baseman Brian Anderson are the only players from that 2017 squad who will be active for the wild-card round. Like many new CEOs, the word “culture” flows liberally from Jeter, a nebulous concept that in baseball is even harder to define.

For the Marlins, it came in the form of “captain camps” and other modes of teaching that losing, even with a shorthanded roster, was not acceptable if best practices were not followed. For Rojas, it meant not just stopping the bleeding on field but aiming to extend the club’s flagging brand in South Florida, be it moderating a series of YouTube videos or meeting disenfranchised fans where they are.

“I bought in when this ownership group came in in 2018,” says Rojas. “They had a plan, they executed the plan, and now we’re here. We took the first step toward the goal, which is to be a sustainable winner for a long time.

“They’re not asking me for anything. I just want to be that guy, that leader by example and the guy they feel comfortable around. I want everybody who steps in this clubhouse to feel comfortable and to be themselves. If you’re a good guy and they feel comfortable around you, you’ll probably do good things on the field.”

When Rojas was among the 18 Marlins players who tested positive for COVID-19 after the first series of the year, he cajoled them from afar, blowing up the club’s group text with supportive messages and more or less live-tweeting the games as he recovered in South Florida and his lads won seven of their first 10 games, despite the ad hoc nature of the roster.

“They did an unbelievable job in that short period of time,” Jeter says of GM Michael Hill’s staff scaring up enough major league-ready bodies from the waiver wire, low-level trades and the depths of the organization.

 The team that will take on the Central-winning Cubs is plenty dangerous. Alcantara and Sanchez alone are enough to worry any opponent in a best-of-three series, while trade-deadline pickups Starling Marte and Jonathan Villar lengthen the lineup and deepen a club that by now feels invulnerable.

That’s not an easy trait to develop, particularly for a group that lost 98 and 105 games after the 2017-18 winter purge. But Mattingly knew he had a building block in Rojas, whom he managed with the Dodgers in 2014, and who had a willingness to play any position, any day of the week.

In this rebuild, that “When and where?” vibe brought the Marlins a lot closer to answering the “How and why?” after Jeter and Co. seemed to launch them into an interminable rebuild.

“That mentality is really what started to move the needle,” says Mattingly. “You need to have leadership and a coaching staff that won’t settle. It’s not OK to lose. Even if you’re losing 100 games, it’s still not OK.

“That’s how you slowly turn the corner.”

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