Phillies debate Johan Rojas' future, Bowa backs the ‘best center fielder’ he has seen

With Johan Rojas' Opening Day status up in the air, Phillies legend Larry Bowa has thrown his support behind the young center fielder.
Philadelphia Phillies center fielder Johan Rojas
Philadelphia Phillies center fielder Johan Rojas / Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

It's reaching crunch time for Philadelphia Phillies manager Rob Thomson as final roster decisions will be due by early next week. Thomson and co. are currently tasked with deciding the last three spots in the bullpen, and judging by the most recent round of cuts, some candidates the team may carry up north are starting to come into clear focus.

The same can't be said for Thomson's decision in the outfield. The third-year manager knows who he wants for the everyday job in centerfield. His problem? Is it the right thing for the team and the right thing for the player? Of course, we're talking about the ongoing problem of Johan Rojas' inability to hit enough to justify an everyday role to begin the season.

Right now, the 24-year-old human-highlight reel center fielder is mired in a frustrating slump at the plate. It has many fans and baseball writers making the argument that the team and Rojas would be best served by starting the 2024 season in the minors. Not all share that sentiment. But we'll get into that later.

Rojas' current spring stat line could force Thomson's hand. In 14 games and 45 at-bats, Rojas is only batting .156 with seven hits, eight strikeouts, and only a single walk. Sure, he has three extra-base hits and two stolen bases, but many would argue that the promising youngster needs more at-bats in the minor leagues before making his debut. And while Rojas struggles at the plate, the players he's in competition with are making Thomson's decision that much more difficult.

According to Matt Gelb of The Athletic, what to do with Rojas is creating a popsicle headache for the Phillies' brass as they weigh their toughest roster decision (subscription required).

"The club, according to team sources, is still leaning in Rojas' direction," wrote Gelb. "There are arguments for keeping Rojas and for demoting him to Triple-A, and all those scenarios were discussed Tuesday morning."

It's becoming clear that the Phillies intend to let this decision play out until this weekend, when either they feel confident that Rojas has turned a corner or that more time in Triple-A to begin the season will be the best move for all involved.

Rojas is facing tough competition for a roster spot

For starters, incumbent fifth outfield Cristian Pache is having a solid spring at the plate, although his numbers have come down a little bit in the past week. Overall for the spring, Pache, who is out of minor league options, is batting .233 with seven hits, two home runs, and four RBI in 30 at-bats. Pache is plenty capable of handling outfield duties, and Rojas' failure this spring could be his gain.

Jake Cave is another member of the 2023 Phillies team having a strong showing in spring training. The versatile Cave can play corner outfield spots and handle duties at first base. He's slashing a healthy .333/.355/.433 with 10 hits in 30 at-bats. Those numbers, in addition to his versatility, could make it a hard decision to cut the 31-year-old veteran who is unlikely to accept a minor league assignment.

Similarly, David Dahl, a former one-time MLB All-Star and first-round draft pick who the Phillies signed to a minor league contract this offseason, has also had a solid spring at the plate. The 30-year-old is hitting .257 with nine hits, two home runs, and seven RBI in 35 at-bats. Two things that work against Dahl's favor are that he hits left-handed and is on a minor league deal. One way or another, Dahl is looking for his latest opportunity to regain his form at the plate and force his way back onto a major league roster.

Jordan Luplow was a late entry into the Phillies outfield competition this spring. Released by the rival Atlanta Braves last week, the Phillies quickly worked out a deal with the 30-year-old journeyman and his hot spring training continued from the moment he put on his new uniform. In his Phillies debut, Luplow went 2-for-2 with a home run, a single, and reached base after being hit by a pitch. So far on the spring, split between the Braves and Phillies, Luplow is batting .353 with 12 hits, four home runs and eight RBI in 34 at-bats.

Furthermore, Luplow could be the right guy to add to the roster with his right-handed bat and could be a float-me-over option if the Phillies want to carry a player who's expendable while Rojas gets some at-bats in the minors to begin the season. One thing is clear: a demotion of Rojas will certainly require the Phillies to slide Brandon Marsh back to centerfield and a player, or players, would be tasked with handling left field when the season starts.

Phillies legend Larry Bowa wants to see Rojas on the Opening Day roster

With all of the doom and gloom surrounding Johan Rojas' poor showing in spring training dominating headlines, not all observers of the club share the viewpoint that Rojas should spend more time in Triple-A. In fact, Rojas has a major supporter within the Phillies dugout this spring: former Phillies manager and infielder Larry Bowa.

Bowa recently answered questions at an intimately attended event in Clearwater. When asked how the Phillies should handle Rojas to begin the season, the former skipper was passionate in his feelings that the team would be better off with his defensive gifts on the field and justified his place as an everyday regular in the starting lineup.

"I will say this, if we're worried about Rojas hitting with our lineup, we're in trouble," answered Bowa. "We have a lineup one to eight, we can do a lot of damage. Rojas is the best centerfielder I've seen in a long, long time."

With fresh memories of Scott Kingery's meteoric nosedive due to poor performance and shattered confidence, a recent cautionary tale for the Phillies organization, Bowa hopes the Phillies won't make the same mistake if they option Rojas to the minors to begin the season.

"If you're going to send him down, you better be careful because you have the chance of losing this kid," explained Bowa. "He's going to go down there, he's probably going to mope a little bit. It's going to be how they [the Phillies] handle it. Personally, I want Rojas in centerfield."

The final roster decisions have yet to be handed down, but how things play out over the final days of spring training will have some interesting outcomes as the Phillies turn their attention to Opening Day and the start of the 2024 season. The outfield competition is clearly not close to being settled yet. Stay tuned.