Dee Gordon's return poses challenges for Don Mattingly, Marlins

In St. Louis, Miami Marlins hitting coach Barry Bonds is sitting inside the clubhouse on a folding chair, cooling off from the 90-degree heat before batting practice. Marlins players are handing him their new bats. Bonds holds them in his hand, feeling the weight of each. He wouldn’t have liked a few of these when he played, he says. They’re too heavy. Bonds laughs with the team and talks about what things were like back then.

As players run on the field to stretch, Ichiro Suzuki, who entered Thursday three hits away from 3,000 in his MLB career, stops in the dugout, grabs a clean white towel and wipes the top of the benches, scrubbing them until there is no sign of dirt or dust. He places his two bats for the game on top of the freshly cleaned surface, leaning them against the dugout wall. His batting glove goes to the right of the bats, and his glove is placed to the left. He does this before every game. He then runs out to the field to stretch with his teammates.

Toward the end of batting practice, ace Jose Fernandez shags balls in the outfield and tosses them to kids in the stands as they yell his name.

These brief snapshots are a part of the Marlins' story in 2016. The mood surrounding the team feels like a cross between waiting in line to get into Cooperstown and learning what it takes to play in the majors. It’s a narrative consisting of a wide range of experience, from coaches such as Bonds and players such as Ichiro to young talent such as Fernandez. So far, this blend has the Marlins in a position where few thought they'd be. ESPN.com's preseason projections had Miami as the 22nd-best team in the majors. And try finding the Marlins logo on this page. Only one of our writers and analysts had the Marlins in the playoffs. As of Thursday morning, at 55-46, the Marlins are a game ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals and 1½ games ahead of the New York Mets for the second National League wild-card berth.

This season, however, hasn’t been without its bumps. During the first three months, outfielder Giancarlo Stanton went through a horrendous slump, batting .220 during while striking out 93 times. Miami's starting rotation, with the exception of Fernandez, is average. According to research by ESPN Stats & Information, with Fernandez’s numbers taken out, the Marlins' rotation is 22-24 and has a 4.46 ERA, 1.39 WHIP and averages 6.9 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. 
But the most glaring obstacle has been at the top of the order, where the Marlins have been without their leadoff man, 2015 National League batting champion and Gold Glove-winning second baseman, Dee Gordon for four-fifths of the season. Gordon played just 21 games, hit .266/.289/.340 in 94 at-bats before being suspended for 80 games April 29 for violating baseball’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.

On Thursday, Gordon will be reinstated. But there's a measure of uncertainty that surrounds his return and raises several questions for the Marlins: How will they use Gordon without really knowing what he will bring to the table after being out for 80 games? How will Gordon fit into the tight fabric of a team that is already well developed?

By getting the reigning NL batting champion and the two-time reigning stolen-base king back into the fold, the Marlins are in a position to be better in the season's final two months. The first challenge they face is to figure out how to weave Gordon back into playing every-day baseball.

“I can’t tell you that I have an ironclad plan of how we’re going to do it,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said in St. Louis. “It will be more of a blend than just throwing him into the fire. So, that’s kind of the way we’re talking about it.”

On July 19, Gordon joined Triple-A New Orleans, where the Marlins wanted him to polish his timing at the plate and sharpen his ability to read pitches. Gordon, a 2015 All-Star, batted .257 in 35 at-bats in Triple-A, with nine hits and seven runs.

“Our main thing is to try and get Dee ready to compete,” Mattingly said. “Guys that end up with 300 at-bats at this point in the year are starting to get pretty hardened to competition, to pitching, to off-speed [pitches] and to changeups.

"A 100 at-bats is not a lot of at-bats. So you’re not at the right pace. It takes a while to get back to that.”

The second challenge is fitting Gordon back into the team while knowing he can’t play in the postseason. Should the Marlins get there, Gordon won't be eligible. He’d be the first player since the rules change in 2014 to sit out the playoffs because of a PED suspension. So how do the Marlins use Gordon to get into October while keeping other players ready?

“Donnie and I have talked a lot about it,” said Michael Hill, Marlins president of baseball operations. “Obviously, Dee is an 'Energizer Bunny' in terms of what he brings to the club. In his absence a lot of guys have stepped up and been productive.

"I think you’ll see Donnie mix and match and do some things to make sure everybody stays healthy and remains productive.”

Derek Dietrich is one such player who should be in the mix. He has filled in nicely for Gordon at second base, batting .272 with four home runs and 30 RBIs. How, specifically, Gordon and Dietrich are used day to day can’t be answered until Gordon gets a few games in at the major league level.

“Obviously, we’re a lot better [with Gordon],” Mattingly said. “He gives us a dimension we don’t really have a ton of, as far as the guy that can create runs on his own, what he does at second base.

"Knowing that [Gordon] can’t play in the playoffs, how do we blend that mix together, keep going to where we want to go, get to where we want to go, and keep everybody a part of that mix? That’s what we have to balance as we moved forward.”

A player with Gordon's speed and energy can change the pace of the game and put a lot of pressure on opposing pitchers. Last season, Gordon led the majors with 58 stolen bases. Hill says the Marlins need to score more: While Miami ranks first in the NL in batting average (.272), its 425 runs scored ranks 11th.

“This is a good baseball team,” Hill added. “We really like the talent that we have here.”

The Marlins have three hitters with more than 300 at-bats hitting .300 or better. Stanton has started to heat up, hitting .321/.389/.667 with seven homers in July. Fernandez is a true ace, with a 12-4 record, 2.54 ERA and major-league best 13.05 strikeouts per nine innings.

Every team in the majors will hype the value of teamwork, but as Gordon returns, Mattingly will expect the Marlins to show how teamwork can be more than a cliché. They enter a four-game homestand against visiting St. Louis during which they can put more distance in the standings between themselves and the Cardinals and Mets.

“When the whole group is fighting for it, I think you just have a way better chance of winning than when half the guys buy in and half of the guys don’t,” Mattingly said. “It’s really about them, honestly. It’s about their relationship and not wanting to let each other down.

"That’s really what you get if you get the team thing going. You get a group of guys who like each other and don’t want to let their buddy down and they want to win.”