Joe Dunand played 11 games for Leones del Escogido in the Dominican Winter League (Liga de Beisbol Dominicano) last offseason. As of Thursday, he had once again played in exactly 11 games in LIDOM's 2020 iteration. In 2019, he went 4-for-26 (.154) with no homers. This time around, he leads league qualifiers with an .886 OPS and ranks among the top four in average (.297), OBP (.400), slugging (.486), hits (11) and total bases (18).
What's happened in between is a whole lot of work and a whole lot of, well, nothing at the same time.
"Me personally, I had a year to work on my game, basically, because there was no season last year," Dunand told MiLB.com by phone from the Dominican Republic. "So I just got to work."
The 25-year-old was in his third Spring Training camp on the Minor League side for Miami and even appeared in the Marlins' penultimate Grapefruit League game before operations were shut down on March 12. When the stoppage extended into April, May and June, it looked like what could have been a make-or-break year for the infielder was in danger of quickly turning into the latter.
The reason 2020 could have been designated as such was that this was meant to be Dunand's Rule 5-eligibility season.
Taken in the second round of the 2017 Draft out of NC State, the right-handed slugger, who came with some name recognition as the nephew of Alex Rodriguez, was expected to be an above-average power hitter at shortstop with the likelihood to move to third base, where his 55-grade arm could still play. Unfortunately, Dunand couldn't quite catch on above Class A Advanced in his first two full seasons. Following a promotion to Double-A Jacksonville on June 22, 2018, he hit just .212/.276/.369 with seven homers over his final 61 games in the Southern League. A return to the Jumbo Shrimp didn't prove much more plentiful, especially in the power department. Dunand hit only five homers over 130 games back in Jacksonville in 2019 and finished with a .242/.314/.333 line and 90 wRC+. As such, his stock dropped from a top-30 prospect in the Marlins system to outside of MLB.com's rankings altogether.
Dunand needed to prove he could perform at the upper levels early in 2020 and consistently throughout the rest of the season to truly be considered for a 40-man spot come November, or even a Major League debut before then. The pandemic had other plans.
"I feel like I missed out on potentially a great year and a potential call-up," Dunand said. "You know, that's the goal for me is to get to the big leagues and stay there for a long time. So just losing a whole year, it's not fun. It's not exciting. It's not good news at all. But we have to do the best with what we have, and everything happens for a reason."
In lieu of in-game opportunities to prove himself, Dunand got in what he calls "the lab" to try to understand what had gone wrong in Jacksonville in the past and what could be corrected. He spent some of the summer months working out of Florida International University in his native Miami, where coach Mervyl Melendez offered him use of the facilities. The daily routine of sprints, working out, cage work and infield work kept Dunand grounded in a time that could have been chaotic or even lackadaisical, and the importance of all that went back to advice he received from his 14-time All-Star uncle from the time he started his pro career. In fact, Rodriguez was right next to Dunand on the couch when he heard his name called on the first night of the 2017 Draft.
"Early on, he told me to get into my routine," Dunand said. "Being in the Minor Leagues, you are still developing. I'm still growing as a baseball player, as a person. So having my routine, it's like taking my vitamins. You do them every day. You take your vitamin C, you take whatever. You have to take them and you have to do your routine every day to keep getting better. ... We won't really talk about that I need to do this or do that. It's more of how I feel, what I'm thinking, because he's a big believer in the mental part of the game. Getting into that routine is a big part of that for him."
In that routine over the summer, Dunand had noticed his swing was getting too imbalanced and featured too much movement. That cut down on his decision-making time at the plate and led to some rough swings back in Jacksonville and some similarly rough numbers. The solution was to start with his feet and his lower half, where his power potential had always emanated from in the first place.
"My stride, for example, it felt like I had no consistent feel to it last year," Dunand said. "It was either a toe tap or a leg lift. There were times when it was up, down and then back. I knew what I was doing, but I just didn't feel like it was so consistent. Now after working on it, it's just up, down [with my leg]. Every time I swing I want to feel grounded. I want to feel my own balance, obviously, and, you know, just feel my legs into my swing. I don't want to be lunging forward. I don't want to be too far back. I want to be perfectly balanced. I have strong powerful legs, and I want to really get them into my swing."
While working on that aspect of his game, Dunand was unable to put it into actual play and show the product of his work. Because of his previous struggles, the Marlins kept him out of both the 60-man player pool during the season and instructional camp in the fall. (For what it's worth, the latter only featured one player above the age of 23, and that was $5.25 million signing Víctor Víctor Mesa.) When the Minor League season was officially canceled on June 30, Dunand read the tea leaves in front of him and started working on a return to Escogido, where he could still get in some game action before the calendar year was out.
The proof has been in the pudding so far in the Dominican Republic.
Dunand went 2-for-3 with a double in his first game back with the Leones on Nov. 18, producing the multi-hit game that evaded him in 2019. His first LIDOM homer came four days later, when he connected off Aguilas Cibaenas reliever Juan Nicasio, who has 720 1/3 innings of experience in the Majors. The exit velocity on the homer was 104 mph, no cheap shot. Had he done it in the regular season for the Marlins, it would have been in the top 25 for hardest-hit homers by a Miami slugger in 2020.
Every one of his starts has come at third base, where he has less experience in the Minors, but he insists he keeps taking grounders at short to keep his footwork up in case Escogido or the Marlins need him back at the six.
Time, however, is running out on how much of a show Dunand can put on down in the Dominican. Because of COVID-19 concerns, the LIDOM season is limited to 30 regular-season games. Escogido's schedule comes to an end on Dec. 20, and there's the potential for postseason play after a holiday break.
"You take every game as if it's your last," Dunand said. "It's just like the MLB season being 60 games. Every single one counts. So you just want to show up every single day with the best of your abilities. You don't want to take one day off because that one day can really hurt you."
What's especially notable is that Dunand is making the most of this opportunity on a Leones roster that is filled with much bigger names. Wander Franco and Julio Rodriguez were big headliners for the club as two of the game's top 15 overall prospects on the same LIDOM roster. Escogido also boasts a Major League hitter in Gregory Polanco and is expected to add another booming bat in Vladimir Guerrero Jr. before the season is out. But those names are not currently at or near the top of league batting leaderboards. (Franco's season was cut short after five games due to shoulder and biceps injuries, while Rodriguez has gone just 9-for-44 (.205) in his brief time this winter.)
That feeling of producing at a higher level than bigger names is something Dunand will need to reproduce when he returns stateside. Since Miami took him in the Draft three years ago, the Marlins system has grown to become one of the brightest and deepest in the game. The organization showed off some of that prospect depth during the Major League season as the club made its third-ever trip to the postseason, despite taking big roster hits at times due to COVID-19 outbreaks.
Because of that depth, Dunand was left without a 40-man roster spot before this year's Rule 5 Draft, though the Marlins did choose to protect him from the Minor League portion of that process by placing him on their Triple-A roster. Before the slugger can wiggle his way into an even more solid roster spot with Miami, Dunand knows he has more work to do to solidify his own performance down in the Dominican Republic.
"I would love a big league invite to Spring Training," he said, "and then to be able to go from there and see what happens. But I definitely want to finish strong here. All those numbers are nice and everything, but I just want to feel like I've developed and gotten better while I was down here. At the end of the day, I want to show that I belong in the big leagues. And as of now, I feel like I am doing that."
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.