JUPITER, Fla. — An hour before the first full-squad workout, All-Star slugger Giancarlo Stanton weaved his way through Japanese media camped out at Roger Dean Stadium on Tuesday morning.
With future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki also on the team, not just local but international eyes are trained on the Marlins for the first time in years. Following a record-breaking 13-year, $325 million contract extension in November, Stanton has since accepted the responsibility that comes with it on a sport-wide level.
"It’s huge to be considered one of the faces of baseball," Stanton said. "It’s everything I’ve worked for. The long hours in the offseason and just preparing myself and all that. It’s big. It’s good and just keep playing hard."
Stanton, whose 2014 season ended 17 games early when he took a pitch to the face, said he no longer has pain and is 100 percent. Since arriving in Florida two weeks ago, he has hit in the cages every day. Stanton plans to wear a faceguard on his helmet for protection.
Despite needing several facial and dental surgeries following the incident, Stanton kept to his typical offseason routine. There are no qualms about facing live pitching for the first time. He anticipates pitchers testing him inside.
"I look forward to hitting off live pitching," Stanton said. "I don’t look forward to it anymore than I have in the past. What happened to me is not one of my focuses to get past. I’m just looking at it as a normal spring training. As long as I do that I’ll be alright."
Prior to that fateful pitch, Stanton was considered a frontrunner for National League Most Valuable Player. In 145 games, he hit .288 with a league-leading 37 home runs and 105 RBI. He had paced the NL in nearly every offensive category, including slugging percentage (.555).
During Winter Warm-Up this past weekend, president of baseball operations Michael Hill said Stanton had "unfinished business."
"No reservation from anyone in our camp," Hill said. "If you’ve seen him in Ayudan Week he looks unbelievable physically, mentally. He’s ready. He has unfinished business because before that pitch he was my MVP. That injury sort of robbed him of that opportunity. In his mind he has unfinished business, and he has unfinished business with this team. Obviously he’s the face of our team and he wants to lead us. Seventy-seven wins was an improvement, but it wasn’t good enough for anyone, let alone him. I don’t think any of us will be happy until we’re playing into October and eventually being sized up for a ring at the end."
On Tuesday, Stanton didn’t say those words. Instead, he hoped to "continue what I was doing. Continue to be smarter on the field. The process of it. Unfinished business? Sure. Whatever. I’m just ready to play and get this season started."
The 25-year-old won’t put extra pressure on himself because of how his season prematurely ended and the blockbuster deal. He has prepared as he always has and doesn’t feel the need to prove something.
That’s because as promised, the Marlins made several moves to upgrade the club after his signing.
With the additions of All-Stars Dee Gordon and Martin Prado, first baseman Michael Morse as well as right-handers Mat Latos and Dan Haren, there is a strong supporting cast to complement arguably baseball’s top outfield of Stanton, Gold Glover Christian Yelich and center fielder Marcell Ozuna.
"I think we’ve talked about that," manager Mike Redmond said of the weighted expectations. "I think that’s why we went out and made the moves that we did to surround him with veteran guys, guys that have been around, guys that have won to take the pressure off not just him but Yelly and Ozo. At the end of the day, Stanton’s still a young player, a young guy. The message is for guys to do their jobs. We don’t need anybody to do more than they’re capable of doing. He’s a great player and there’s no doubt with the contract that he signed people are going to expect him to do unbelievable things, but for us to win and for us to have a great season we just need him to be himself."
For just the second time in Stanton’s five seasons with the Marlins, there are legitimate postseason expectations. Miami holds the third-longest playoff drought (11) behind the Toronto Blue Jays (21) and Seattle Mariners (13). Unlike 2012, the foundation took root in the Marlins clubhouse last year. There is stability.
Does he believe this is a playoff team?
"Yes. We’ll see. We’ve got to do it," Stanton said. "We don’t just say this every spring training: ‘We’re going to the playoffs, World Series, all this.’ We’ve got the talent to be there of course, but what are we going to do come August, September? That’s up to us."