When the MLB trade deadline came and went on August 1, many were expecting the Philadelphia Phillies to add a right-handed bat in the outfield. Instead, president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski made it clear they had enough trust in rookie Johan Rojas to get the job done.
Fast-forward a week and that job looks a little different. Rojas now has the opportunity to prove that trust isn’t misplaced.
During Saturday’s 9-6 win over the Kansas City Royals, outfielder Brandon Marsh was injured in the top of the fifth inning when he ran into the wall in center field, falling to the ground in obvious pain. On Sunday, the team announced it was putting the 25-year-old on the injured list because of a left knee contusion.
Before his injury, Marsh was hitting .281 with eight home runs and 43 RBI. Among qualified batters, Marsh was leading the team in both slugging percentage (.460) and on-base percentage plus slugging (.827), leaving a hole at the bottom of a lineup that has been more productive than not this year.
The team officially called up 28-year-old utility player Weston Wilson to take Marsh’s roster spot, but Wilson is not expected to take over center field.
With an estimated timeline of two to three weeks until Marsh is ready to return, Matt Gelb of The Athletic noted that the Phillies will turn to Rojas as their everyday center fielder:
It’s time for Rojas to shine
Rojas was called up on July 14 to replace Cristian Pache, who was placed on the injured list and subsequently had surgery to remove a screw in his elbow.
The Phillies, who a few weeks ago had an overabundance of center fielders, now find themselves down to one — the 22-year-old Rojas.
After the trade deadline last week, Corey Seidman of NBC Sports Philadelphia relayed Dombrowski’s comments about Rojas when explaining why the team didn’t bring in another right-handed bat: “We really liked the job that Rojas has done for us. He's a young kid coming up that's given us energy. We like him. His defense is outstanding. His speed is good. He's felt comfortable at the big-league level.”
Heading into Monday’s game against the Washington Nationals, Rojas hasn’t done much to dissuade the Phillies from that viewpoint. While he hasn’t hit any home runs with the big league club after racking up nine with Double-A Reading earlier this year, he has shown plenty of reasons to be excited about his future with the ballclub.
With Philadelphia, Rojas is hitting .326 with eight RBI and four stolen bases in 17 games heading into Monday. In his last five games, the rookie is hitting .357 with a .500 slugging percentage and a .900 OPS.
According to Gelb, Rojas is ready to step up: “I’m always ready to help the team win. But, honestly, I wish Marsh a speedy recovery. ... But, in the meantime, I’m going to take advantage of the moment and do my best to cover him.”
One thing is for sure: Manager Rob Thomson is comfortable moving forward with Rojas in center. According to Gelb, Thomson said, “I mean, he’s playing great. So we’ll see if he can keep it going. But he looks very comfortable.”
With the Phillies three games up in the tight NL wild-card race, they're going to need Rojas to remain comfortable in his new role.
Electric plays and growing pains for the Phillies rookie
While Rojas will have some growing pains as a rookie, he has already come through with some big hits and smart plays for the team.
In his major league debut, Rojas made a splash, falling into the scoreboard and turning a double play from the outfield in the first inning:
On Sunday, Rojas got caught in a rundown between third base and home plate in the seventh inning, but he managed to draw it out long enough for Kyle Schwarber and Alec Bohm to advance to third and second, respectively. The next batter, Bryce Harper, drove in Schwarber with a sac fly. The Phillies went on to win 8-4.
In last Monday’s 4-2 win over the Miami Marlins, Rojas stepped to the plate in the top of the fourth inning with two on and the Phillies trailing 2-0. It didn’t take long for that deficit to disappear:
As Gelb noted, though, he also got picked off first base in the bottom of the fourth inning Sunday, something that can’t happen.
As he adds to his 47 plate appearances, his timing will hopefully improve. In Reading, he stole 30 bases in 76 games and was caught eight times. If he can cut down on mistakes on the basepaths, his speed should set the Phillies up for success with the power-hitting Kyle Schwarber behind him.
With more regular at-bats, Rojas should continue to get even more comfortable and settle into his role in center and near the bottom of the lineup. At a time when the team is starting to get contributions from more players overall throughout the lineup, the Phillies don’t need Rojas to step directly into Marsh’s shoes and replace him stat for stat.
Center field is his. Now that he'll be in the lineup every day, he needs to step up and prove he can bring consistency, speed and energy to the ballclub day in and day out.