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February 24, 2016

Herrera the favorite to remain in center for Phillies

CLEARWATER, Fla. – The monotony of spring workouts will reach a conclusion this weekend, when the Phillies begin the exhibition season schedule on Sunday against the University of Tampa.

But one of the net results of moving from the vast spaces of the Carpenter Complex to Bright House Field is there is only one mound, one space at each position in the infield, and three places for players to play in the outfield. Slowly but surely, players will begin moving into minor league camp or getting used to more regular time on the bench.

One of the more intriguing storylines of those that will remain on the major league field is how they will be aligned in the outfield. For most of the winter, there had been much talk of shifting Odubel Herrera out of center field and into a corner spot to accommodate newcomer Peter Bourjos, a defensive wizard who once pushed Mike Trout out of center in Anaheim.

Four days before the team’s first game, manager Pete Mackanin revealed his current line of thinking, and it doesn’t involve moving his converted infielder out of center field after all.

“I’m leaning toward leaving Odubel alone in centerfield,” Mackanin said after a rainy day workout in Clearwater on Wednesday. “One of the reasons why is because he did such a good job at getting himself to become a pretty good centerfielder.”

Earlier in the day, Herrera himself was asked about the possibility of moving from the position he just learned a year ago in Clearwater … only to learn another new position all over again this spring.

“I think I’m an athletic guy,” Herrera said through a translator. “I can play anywhere the coach wants me to play. So if he wants me to play left field, that’s where I play.”

Herrera’s willingness to do whatever is necessary – whether it’s extra outfield work in Clearwater more than an hour before players have to dress, or spending extra time in the batting cage after workouts or games - is a part of what made him a popular player within the Phillies organization a year ago. Back then, he was mostly an unknown Rule 5 pick who came with the reputation as a prospect with a big swing but no true position to play.

The Phils scouts that recommended him in the Rule 5 draft thought his athleticism would play well in center field. They were correct - even former Gold Glove winner Aaron Rowand saw the potential as a guest instructor in camp last year.

Herrera replaced the lightning-quick but weak-armed Ben Revere as the team’s regular center fielder and was one of the best defensive center fielders in the game, at least according to DRS (defensive runs saved), the latest en vogue defensive metric. Only Tampa’s Kevin Kiermaier, Kansas City’s Lorenzo Cain, Toronto’s Kevin Pillar, and Arizona’s A.J. Pollock had more defensive runs saved than Herrera.

Herrera’s 10 defensive runs saved was the most by a Phillies center fielder since Shane Victorino won his first Gold Glove in 2008. (Notable: Bourjos had 12 runs saved in 2011). But Herrera is still very much new to the position and one year of work does not make him a finished product, either.

“Obviously you saw the improvement, but we still have him coming out early,” Phillies third base coach and outfield instructor Juan Samuel, who runs the extra, early morning drills for outfielders in Clearwater. “ I told him we have to continue to keep doing what we were doing last year. I don’t want him to sit around thinking, ‘I got it.’ Because that’s when you run into trouble.”

Samuel, who once converted himself from the infield to the outfield, replacing Lenny Dykstra in center field for the Mets after being traded by the Phillies, is concentrating on areas where Herrera could improve his defensive game.

“You just want to make sure you don’t get him too relaxed as a hitter,” Samuel said. “This is his second year (and) I told him this is probably going to be the toughest for him. Defensively he’s going to hold his own, but offensively … I just want to think it’s going to be a easy as last year.”

“He’s been great reading balls,” Samuel said. “We still have to work on the balls straight at him over his head. He’ll make those plays, but they still look a little shaky, the routes. That’s the one thing I’m going to attack. And (we’re) making sure they throw to the right bases. Especially with him – sometimes he feels like he’s got to throw everybody out. Manage the game properly from out there.”

Just because Mackanin said he was leaning toward Herrera in center on Feb. 24 doesn’t mean you should pencil him into that slot on Opening Day. The Phillies still have five weeks before they break camp in Clearwater and the depth chart in the outfield could be fluid.

Sure, Herrera, Bourjos and Aaron Altherr could be the favorites to fill the three spots in what would be the best defensive Phillies outfield since the days Rowand, Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth and Michael Bourn were on the roster (along with Pat Burrell) in September of 2007. But the exhibition season could also provide Cody Asche ample time to get back onto the radar with a strong offensive showing. Ditto Tyler Goeddel, who could follow Herrera’s path from Double-A to the Rule 5 draft to major league regular.

Whether he’s in center field or not, though, the perpetually positive Herrera, who wore an ear-to-ear grin as he showed off his new haircut for reporters on Wednesday, is the only outfielder assured of a spot in the regular lineup. Because in addition to being at-worst dependable in center field, he was the Phillies most consistent hitter in 2015, batting .297 with a .344 OBP, 30 doubles and eight home runs in 147 games.

But, as Samuel warned, Herrera is no longer an unknown. In Year 2, major league pitchers will have a well-documented book on Herrera, who did strike out 129 times in 537 plate appearances as a rookie.

“You just want to make sure you don’t get him too relaxed as a hitter,” Samuel said. “This is his second year (and) I told him this is probably going to be the toughest for him. Defensively he’s going to hold his own, but offensively … I just want to think it’s going to be a easy as last year.”

Herrera has received the message.

“I’m just focused on progressing, keep working hard” he said, “because I want to get better.”