Kahlil Watson sat in the home team dugout at loanDepot park, watching as teammates hit off a pitching machine during the Miami Marlins’ fall development camp, when someone calls for him to come in the stands for a quick talk.
He looks to his right. It’s Derek Jeter.
The two shortstops — 18-year-old Watson just starting his professional baseball career as the Marlins’ first-round pick in the 2021 MLB Draft, Jeter just removed from being enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and finishing up his fourth year as Marlins CEO and architect of the organization’s latest on-field rebuild — sat feet up behind home plate for about 10 minutes.
“He’s just trying to give us knowledge,” Watson said. “He’s been around the game for so long, and he’s just one of the best players out there to play shortstop. This is definitely a dream come true when I first met him. Now it’s just like, ‘Yeah, he’s my boss. I need to learn from him.’ “
Watson, who the Marlins selected with the No. 16 overall pick out of Wake Forest High School in North Carolina, will take any advice he can get after what can be described as a bumpy and abbreviated first season of professional baseball.
While his pure numbers at the rookie-level Florida Complex League were nothing short of outstanding — .394 batting average, 1.130 on-base-plus slugging, four stolen bases and 13 runs scored — they came in just nine out of a possible 27 games that he could have played in after making his debut on Aug. 16. A Grade 2 hamstring strain sidelined him for the final two and a half weeks of the minor-league season.
“About seven games into my season,” Watson explained, “I tweaked it a little bit, so I was out for like two or three days. After that, I was good to play, and then once I got out there, the first day I was good. The second day, I swung off a pitch in the dirt and tried to beat it out. I was trying to do too much and then I tweaked it again. ... I sat out for four weeks. Now, I’m back out here. It’s still bothering me, but at the same time, I don’t feel it at all when I run.”
His biggest challenge early on? Facing velocity on a consistent basis.
“It was definitely a progress,” Watson said. “As soon as I went into it people were throwing 95 and 97 [mph]. In high school, I wasn’t seeing that at all. It was a big difference.”
Watson went 0 for 3 in his debut, reaching on a walk and a fielding error and scoring twice. He had at least one hit in each of his final eight games, including four multi-hit outings. He struck out just six times in 42 plate appearances.
MLB Pipeline ranks Watson as the No. 27 overall prospect in baseball and notes that he’s an “explosive athlete with the potential for solid or better tools across the board.”
His speed is his top attribute, but he has the ability to hit for average and power.
“Really just a special, special talent,” Marlins director of minor-league operations Geoffrey DeGroot said. “Did a great job at the FCL. It was cut a little bit short due to a minor injury, but Kahlil really stood out.”
And there would be reason for Watson to have a possible chip on his shoulder. He was projected as a potential top-five pick in the draft but slipped to the Marlins at No. 16.
That’s in the past now. Watson can’t control how that unfolded.
What he can control, though, is maximizing his opportunities as he maneuvers through the minor leagues.
“At the end of the day,” Watson said, “that’s just what got you here. Now, you’ve got to get through this process so that you can be in the big leagues. That doesn’t faze me at all.”
More development camp notables
▪ While Watson is the headliner, two other prospects stood out consistently during the three days media were allowed to view development camp: catcher Joe Mack and infielder Jose Salas.
Mack, who the Marlins selected with the No. 31 overall pick and ranked as the No. 8 overall prospect in Miami’s system, hit a steady stream of line drives during batting practice and simulated games against a pitching machine.
Mack only hit .132 with a .581 OPS during his 19 games at the Florida Complex League. He did walk 20 times in 75 plate appearances.
“Pro ball was definitely new,” Mack said. “I had to accustom myself to a new lifestyle.”
The biggest change for the 18-year-old from the Buffalo area was not living with his parents.
“Not saying, ‘Hi mom, hi dad’ right to their face was a little upsetting,” Mack said, “but I call them all the time. I talk with them. They helped guide me through a lot of stuff.”
Salas, meanwhile, used the three weeks to build on a success introduction to the minor leagues, an introduction that was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The middle infielder split time between the Florida Complex League and Class A Jupiter and hit .305 with a .796 OPS, 14 doubles, two home runs, 19 RBI and 26 runs scored in 55 games.
He was the Marlins’ top international free agent signing in 2019 and is ranked as their No. 10 overall prospect.
“This season that I had,” Salas said, “I really focused on trying to make that first impression.”
▪ A feel good story from the 2021 season: Osiris Johnson.
The Marlins’ second-round pick in 2018 showed potential early on before a right leg injury sidelined him in 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic eliminated his 2020 season.
This year, he played in 92 games and transitioned to playing center field after being an infielder his entire career.
“Once we made that transition, he really took off and hit the ground running,” DeGroot said. “I really expect Osiris to get off to a strong start next year. He finished strong this year. We could not be prouder of him, handling the transition the way he did.”
Johnson’s summation of his pro ball career to this point?
“It’s been a lot,” he said. “Up and down. Some highs. Some lows. Some injuries. It’s been all over.”