Christian Yelich and J.T. Riddle were the first Miami Marlins on the field for the team’s pregame stretch Sunday evening.
Yelich went out a few minutes early to fulfill an on-camera media obligation, a routine move for one the most popular players in the clubhouse. Riddle just wanted to take it all in — the literal bright lights, the triple-decker stadium, and all the other features that set Citi Field apart from the dozens of minor league ballparks he has played in the past four years.
“Gotta get a good look, right?” Riddle said.
He was a long way from Frankfort, where he grew up learning to hunt — and developing a taste for deer meat — and rooting for Chipper Jones, the star of the team most often on television there.
That was just outside of Lexington, where the former Western Hills star later played at the University of Kentucky for three seasons. The Marlins drafted him in the 13th round of the 2013 draft, and now he’s in the majors for the first time, not quite four years later, ready to make his debut as early as the Marlins’ home opener Tuesday night against the Atlanta Braves.
“It’s kind of unreal to know that I’m here right now,” said Riddle, 25. “It’s the ultimate goal to get up here to the big leagues. It’s been the ultimate goal since I started.”
Riddle will share time at short with Miguel Rojas for as long as Adeiny Hechavarria’s strained left oblique keeps him sidelined. Considered the Marlins’ No. 12 prospect by MLB Pipeline, Riddle differs from most shortstop prospects in that it’s not his natural position. He played mostly second base in college and third early in his pro career before the Marlins put him at short midway through 2014.
That defensive flexibility could benefit the Marlins, who are comfortable playing Riddle at his other positions in a pinch. But Riddle turned the shortstop change into a permanent one. Talent evaluators inside and outside the organization say he can stick there, though he might ultimately end up in a utility-infielder role in the major leagues.
“He’s a legit shortstop,” one said. “Calm, plus arm, can really read a hop. Most of all he makes the [routine plays].”
That calmness is what impressed Manager Don Mattingly the most this spring, Riddle’s second in big league camp. Mattingly raved about the way Riddle carried himself in Jupiter, Fla., — mostly noting how comfortable he was, unlike 2016 when he was a non-roster invitee — and struck the same tone Sunday.
“He’s kind of a low heartbeat guy, from the standpoint [of] he doesn’t really play with a ton of jumping, running around, yelling,” Mattingly said. “He’s just kind of steady. We liked everything we saw in the spring.”
Said Riddle: “I just wanted to show them that I could be relaxed and be the cool guy I am.”
A strong spring is what Riddle had in mind all offseason as he rededicated himself to bulking up. He accomplished that goal (though at 6 feet 1 and about 192 pounds he’s still thin) via a regimen of protein shakes and regular two-a-day workouts.
As one Marlins exec put it this spring, “He went from a prospect to a man.”
It paid off Saturday night, when Riddle was home after Triple-A New Orleans’ game and playing cards with roommate/teammate Drew Steckenrider, another prospect on the cusp of the majors. Riddle’s phone lit up at about 10:30 p.m., with New Orleans Manager Arnie Beyeler on the line to tell him of his call-up.
“That phone call,” Riddle said, “was the best phone call I’ve ever received in my life.”