Among the concerns about the Philadelphia Phillies 2024 roster, the outfield situation remains a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, to borrow a phrase made famous by Winston Churchill. For a team loaded with established and burgeoning stars, with a sprinkle of superstardom, the outfield presents a unique conundrum for the Phillies.
Two of the three spots are up in the air, and could prove to be a fatal flaw for a team with eyes on returning to the World Series in 2024.
Right field is set, with the team planning on plopping Nick Castellanos out there regardless of his poor defensive numbers. The front office and coaching staff will just have to hope his 2024 campaign with the bat resembles his 2023 season more than his 2022 to compensate for the subpar glove.
It's center field that's the primary concern.
Johan Rojas and his defensive wizardry stole the show in center for 59 games over the second half of 2023. His bat kept pace, posting a .302 batting average and .771 OPS — both better than the league average — and enough for manager Rob Thomson to keep him in the lineup on an almost everyday basis.
But after the wheels fell off for the youngster at the plate in the postseason, the 2024 outfield has been a continuing offseason topic for fans and media alike. With Rojas' regular season numbers buoyed by a ridiculous .410 BABIP, which then plummeted to .143 in the playoffs, there are concerns about whether his bat is MLB-ready for a full-season grind.
Left field is also up in the air. With a hodge-podge of Brandon Marsh, Cristian Pache, and Jake Cave finding time in left field in the second half last year, the Phillies will need someone to grab the reins in Spring Training and make it their position. Although the left field situation will depend entirely on Rojas and whether he performs enough in Florida to take at least one decision out of the the team's hands.
That's a lot of moving parts for two positions.
Rob Thomson outlines the outfield plan as he sees it
In an interview earlier this month on the Mike Missanelli Podcast, Thomson clarified the Phillies' plans for the left field-center field situation with the roster as it currently stands. The Phillies skipper hopes that Rojas wins the job — it would indeed make Thomson's job much easier.
"It all depends on Rojas," Thomson said. "And I'm hoping that Rojas has a good spring with the bat and he wins that job because he changes the game defensively for sure. We haven't given him that spot, he's got to earn it."
What happens if he doesn't earn the job out of Spring Training? According to Thomson, their Plan B is to hand the keys to Marsh.
"If it looks like he's [Rojas] struggling, then he needs more bats [in Triple-A], and then Marsh would move over in center field," Thomson said. "And we still have Cave and Pache for left, so I think we're set up really good."
So come Opening Day, Rojas could very well be with the IronPigs in Triple-A, with Marsh in center and Pache and Cave splitting duties in left.
But if Rojas shows out in the spring and wins the center field job to open the season, Marsh will be the everyday left fielder. Either way, the Phillies outfield is in a precarious position. They'll be relying on a still-green Rojas to perform for a full major league season and for Marsh, who mainly played against right-handers last year, to hit against lefties.
Phillies relying on Marsh to hit lefties for the plan to work
In 2023, the 26-year-old Marsh had 308 at-bats against right-handed pitchers, hitting a stout .292, with an .864 OPS and 134 wRC+. In his 96 at-bats versus southpaws, he hit .229, with a .717 OPS and 96 wRC+. Not great, but at least better than his .188 batting average against left-handers in 2022.
Thomson isn't concerned about the Phillies running Marsh out there every day, either in center or left.
"I think [Marsh is] going to be able to hit left-handed pitching. He did at times during the course [of last season]," Thomson said. "There'll be days when you got to give him a day off just get him off his feet, one, but also maybe you line up against a really tough lefty. But I think Marshy's going to be able to hit left-handers, and I really like his game."
To Marsh's credit, he did post a .260 batting average against lefties in 77 at-bats during his rookie season with the Angels. Unfortunately, that was the highlight, as he put up a .560 OPS and 54 wRC+ in that debut experience. You have to think that hitting coach Kevin Long is working with Marsh over the offseason to iron out the kinks and help him become the everyday hitter the Phillies need.
That's the plan right now if the current outfield personnel is the same cast with which the Phillies take into Opening Day. Fans may worry about the strength of the plan, which seems to be balancing on a knife-edge, and the reliability of the players and think the front office needs to find an everyday upgrade.
But president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski makes it sound like that won't happen. Back in December, Dombrowski told MLB.com's Todd Zolecki that they're not looking for an outfielder. And that sentiment hadn't changed as of last week, according to Zolecki.
“Not outfield,” Dombrowski told Zolecki at the end of 2023. “When we talked about outfield, we said [we’d] keep an open mind, but we also are in a position with [Johan] Rojas where we’re really not trying to block his path to the big leagues."
So, the Phillies are keeping an open mind. Or, as Thomson phrases it, despite having complete faith in his players, if "... an outfielder falls in our lap ... then we would act on it."
There's still a lot of time before Opening Day, so maybe we should all have faith but keep an open mind just in case.