There aren’t many positions on the Phillies that are left unsettled as the team careens towards a playoff spot. You can probably figure out who will be in the starting lineup, who will be on the bench, who will be a starter and who will be a reliever once the regular season curtain drops.
Yet still, there are some spots where there is just enough uncertainty that it cause a bit of unease. There are still games, important games even, where lineup decisions leave one baffled. Some players that maybe shouldn’t be are receiving semi-regular playing time even as the clock winds down. Rest for weary players is still at the forefront of Rob Thomson’s mind, matchups that can exploit the starting pitcher are still in play. For the most part, Thomson should have earned our trust since he’s shown he’s got the pulse of the team down pat. But one of the positions that still slightly unsettled is center field. Who is the actual center fielder?
Thomson was asked this the other day, specifically as it relates to Johan Rojas. Commit to Rojas the regular, he will not:
But Thomson isn’t ready to commit to Rojas as the everyday center fielder. It’s possible that he will continue to use a combination of outfielders in left and center.
“You get a ground-ball guy, maybe there’s a better matchup [than Rojas] offensively,” Thomson said. “But a fly-ball guy, even if he doesn’t hit, he’s going to save runs.”
This is all well and good for right now. The regular season still has not concluded, which means players will still need to play now and then in order to remain fresh and ready enough when called upon (nevermind whatever it is that Rodolfo Castro is currently doing). That means that there will be matchups to exploit as well.
But come on.
We all know that Johan Rojas is the center fielder once the playoffs begin. Let’s just all pretend to not notice what is happening here.
Cristian Pache was a solid find and project for the team when they acquired him to start the year. It was a great idea: someone with a near elite defensive reputation and a bat that could use the special tutelage of Kevin Long available at a minimal cost. For much of the season, it looked as though the team had struck gold too. Pache was hitting .360./.360/.600 on April 28 before he got hurt for the first time. When he returned, he picked up almost where he left off, going .292/.370/.583 in 24 plate appearances before he got hurt again. Since he has come back, the playing time has been minimal outside of some defensive replacement duties and it has shown, his having only one hit in 19 plate appearances since returning.
With Pache out, the team needed someone to help shoulder the load in center field and Rojas was that choice. Since that time, Rojas has elevated himself into moving past the potential to being elite with the glove to actually being elite. It’s one of the few tools on the Phillies that one could truly put the elusive 80 grade on. The development path his hitting is currently on shouldn’t matter too much with how good his defense is right now, but he’s more than holding his own at the major league level as his 110 OPS+ suggests he’s been just fine, though how well he holds up once the scouting report circulates around the league remains to be seen.
However, when considering what Rojas brings to the team, there really shouldn’t be that much reliance on what he brings to the table offensively. His glove alone is worthy of his being penciled into the lineup every day. As it sits right now, Rojas is tied for 16th in OAA among center fielders with at least 10 attempts at the position. Names above him have all been in the majors for the majority of the season. If you wanted to break it down even further, you could look at August, when he was the defensive player of the month for Baseball Solutions Info. From that, I wanted to highlight one section (bolding is mine):
Additionally, Rojas has a strong arm, one that has averaged about 92 MPH on the top 10% of his throws. That ranks Top 5 among center fielders this season. Also impressive is that he’s minimized his mistakes. He had only 1 Error and no Defensive Misplays the entire month...Rojas’ 11 Runs Saved for the month easily topped the next-closest center fielder. Daulton Varsho (6) of the Blue Jays was the only other player with more than 5 Runs Saved there in August.
Think about that. As a rookie in the league, learning different parks, different hitters and different reports on the fly, Rojas did not misplay one single ball during the month of August. That kind of defensive stability to difficult to find.
It’s obvious that whoever gets put into the DH spot each day depends on how well Bryce Harper is feeling. Should he need a day from the rigors of first base, he’ll move there, pushing Kyle Schwarber into the outfield and tightening up the playing time availability between Brandon Marsh, Rojas and Pache. But once the playoffs begin, the team needs to make sure that they have their best lineup both on the field and at the plate. That lineup has Johan Rojas in center field full-time.