Philadelphia Phillies manager Rob Thomson held his Winter Meetings press conference on Tuesday afternoon. The first topic on the docket? The Phillies' center field quandary and Johan Rojas' place in the pecking order next season.
The Phillies' outfield situation for the 2024 season has been a question mark since the offseason began, with every expert, analyst, and insider speculating about how the front office will shape the outfield.
So a day after president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said that the team feels "content" about their outfield situation, media members had a chance to ask the recently extended Thomson his thoughts on Rojas and the team's plans for next season.
"I think in the regular season his at-bats were really good," Thomson said when asked what gives him confidence in Rojas' offensive upside. "I think he hit over .300. But it wasn't just that. It was how he worked the count, how he used the field."
"I know the numbers in the postseason weren't very good," he said, addressing the elephant in the room. "But if you look at the at-bats, they were better than the numbers. I think this kid has got some upside. Like Dave [Dombrowski] said yesterday, we're not going to anoint him the center field spot. We'll see what happens in Spring Training, but I really like this kid."
Thomson made sure to emphasize that last point. The manager has full confidence in the 23-year-old defensive wizard, who did indeed hit over .300 in his 59 regular season games — .302, to be exact. He more than held his own after debuting in mid-July with a better-than-league-average .771 OPS and a 111 OPS+.
Rojas has to show the Phillies he's ready for the everyday job
Rojas is back in the weight room and batting cage this offseason, according to Thomson, who said that the team preferred that approach rather than sending the youngster down for Winter League at-bats.
What does Topper need to see from Rojas in Spring Training to give him the job?
"I think getting back to his regular season at-bats where he's using the field, swinging at strikes, not chasing," Thomson said.
The reason there are so many questions about Rojas is how he finished the year. He came out of the postseason mired in a 4-for-43 slump and running a 33.3 percent strikeout rate.
"It's all about pitch selection and not chasing, understanding what his strengths are and staying with those and attacking his strengths," Thomson said when asked what Rojas is specifically working on. "There's probably a little bit of swing mechanic stuff that they're doing. We really want him to bring the strike zone back in over the plate and use the field. If he does that, he's going to be good."
Thomson also made a comparison between his young center fielder and Brett Gardner, who came up with the New York Yankees while the Phillies' skipper was a bench coach for the Bronx Bombers.
"When Gardy first came up, we moved Johnny Damon to left field and Gardy took over center field ... we hit him ninth and just let him go," Thomson said. "I think in our case we have other options, with Marsh and Pache and Cave. So we want to do the best thing, the right thing for Johan, and if that's going to Triple-A and getting how many ever at-bats that he needs, then that's what we'll do."
What is the Phillies' Plan B?
Dombrowski has repeatedly said that the Phillies aren't going to go out of their way to make a move, just for the sake of making a move. If something comes up that makes them better, they'll take it. But at this point, they're relying on Rojas to take that step in the spring and fill the everyday role in center.
But what if he's unable to secure the center field job out of Spring Training? It sounds like Thomson and the Phillies are perfectly fine with Brandon Marsh taking the job to start the year. The only problem with that is that in 2023 he got only 96 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers, and hit .229 with a .717 OPS and a sky-high 39.1 percent strikeout rate.
There was no problem against righties. He hit .292, with a .862 OPS and 133 wRC+. He essentially pigeonholed himself as a platoon split player with his drastically contrasting performances.
However, Thomson thinks Marsh will be his everyday centerfielder to begin 2024 if Rojas has to start the year in Lehigh Valley.
"I think every day to start out with," Thomson said when asked how often Marsh would play center field in that scenario. "Because I do believe he's going to be able to hit left-handed pitching, and I think that's one of the things that [hitting coach Kevin Long] is going to hone in on in Spring Training and prior to Spring Training. I have full confidence in Marsh."
So that settles it. Rojas has the backing from his manager, but it will be on him to earn the job in Florida. And the team is happy to hand the reigns over to Marsh as a Plan B.
Now, we'll wait to see if any opportunities to upgrade the outfield arise for the Phillies between now and February.