Adeiny Hechavarria’s reputation as a sure-handed shortstop started when he was a little kid in Cuba playing with a ping-pong ball.
“Honestly, I’ve always loved to catch the ball,’’ he said through a translator Wednesday before the Marlins’ 5-1 win over Washington.
“From when I was real little, I would play with a ping-pong ball. When I was real young, I never liked to hit. I liked to catch the ball and throw. Catch and throw. That came natural to me. Once I started training, everything came together.’’
Hechavarria, 23, has played in just 41 games since making his major-league debut with Toronto last August. But the Marlins are counting on him to anchor their infield defense and help fans move past the controversial trade that brought him to Miami in November.
Marlins fans watched All-Star-caliber shortstops Hanley Ramirez from 2006-11 and Jose Reyes in 2012. Their first challenge this year will be to pronounce Hechavarria’s names: His first name sounds like “uh-DAY-knee.” His last name, “ETCH-uh-vuh-REE-ya”.
“Hanley Ramirez called us and told us what an incredible shortstop he is,’’ Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria said Monday in remarks defending the trade.
“When Hanley tells you, ‘He is better than I am, you’ve got a great guy with great hands,’ it’s amusing to listen to.’’
Hechavarria may lack experience, but his potential has not escaped the eyes of major-league talent evaluators.
He played for the Cuban Junior National team in 2008 and defected to Mexico in 2009. A year later, he signed a four-year, $10 million contract with Toronto.
He made his major-league debut Aug. 4 and finished last season batting .254 with two homers and 15 RBI.
Now he will enter his first full season while replacing Reyes.
“Sure, it will be an adjustment, because he is young and he’s in a new league seeing all new pitchers, but I like him. He’s a good kid and he plays hard,’’ manager Mike Redmond said.
Redmond, who calls his new shortstop “Hech,’’ said he reminds him of Edgar Renteria, who helped the Marlins win their first championship in 1997.
“He’s a guy who’s got great hands, covers a lot of ground, is smooth,’’ Redmond said.
The big concern is about Hechavarria’s bat.
“Sometimes offense takes little bit to come around, but I think he can hit,” Redmond said. “He has had good at-bats this spring and he’s only going to get more and more comfortable.’’
Hechavarria, who will make $1.75 million, said he doesn’t think about the fact that he will be replacing Reyes, a four-time All-Star and 10-year veteran. As a kid, Hechavarria watched DVDs of Reyes and Derek Jeter.
“If I play as good as (Reyes) or not, that doesn’t matter to me,” Hechavarria told reporters early in camp. “I’m just going to go out and give my best effort.’’
Hechavarria, whose family lives in Weston, said he has been spending extra time in the batting cage. But he understands that he is known for his defense.
“I enjoy that compliment because I train hard,” he said. “I take pride in my defense.’’
Noteworthy: Jose Fernandez, the Marlins’ top pitching prospect, is scheduled to pitch two innings in a B game against the Cardinals at 10 a.m.Thursday on a back field near the St. Louis clubhouse at Roger Dean Stadium. …. Giancarlo Stanton will play two more games — Thursday and Friday — before leaving the Marlins to join Team USA for the World Baseball Classic. …. Retired Marlins All-Star Mike Lowell is scheduled to arrive Thursday for a three-day stint as a guest instructor.
• Marlins right-hander Nathan Eovaldi walked the first batter but settled down and tossed two hitless innings in his spring debut. He struck out three, including Washington’s Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth.
• Marlins left fielder Christian Yelich hit the second pitch of the game off the top of the batter’s eye in center field for a triple. He went 1-for-3 and is 4-for-8 in three games.
• Dan Haren, making his debut for Washington, allowed a run on two hits in two innings and struck out three.