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June 17, 2024

Where the Johan Rojas experiment went wrong and what comes next in center field

Just over 11 months after his major-league debut, Phillies center fielder Johan Rojas was sent to Triple-A Monday afternoon as the Phillies activated Trea Turner from the Injured List.

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Rojas 6.16.24 Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

2024 has been a trying season for Phillies outfielder Johan Rojas. Now, he will look to regain his footing in the minor leagues.

The Phillies were able to present an exciting piece of news Monday, but it was accompanied by them having to swallow a tough pill.

Star shortstop Trea Turner -- who has been on the Injured List since May 4 after suffering a hamstring injury -- has been activated and is in Monday evening's starting lineup. But as the corresponding move, the Phillies optioned Opening Day center fielder Johan Rojas to Triple-A Lehigh Valley, ending -- for now -- an 11-month experiment of whether or not Rojas' at-times-transcendent defense was brilliant enough to outweigh his struggles at the plate.

For a few reasons, the team has decided that now is the time for Rojas, 23, to head back to the minor leagues to get some more seasoning before hopefully coming back to the major-league club and giving the team noteworthy contributions down the line.

Rojas was called up in July of 2023 from Double-A Reading in a move that surprised some, but he held his own: in 59 regular season games, Rojas slashed .302/.342/.430. The underlying metrics suggested this production was being buoyed by good luck, and Rojas' performance at the plate in the postseason affirmed that: Rojas started every game the Phillies played in in the 2023 Postseason, and in 45 plate appearances, he slashed .093/.114/.163.

The Phillies were hoping he would be able to sustain something resembling his 2023 regular season production as a hitter, but instead have seen him look more like the batter who was lost for much of October:

Rojas in 2023Rojas in 2024
59 G58 G
.302 AVG.235 AVG
.342 OBP.271 OBP
.430 SLG.295 SLG
1.5 fWAR0.3 fWAR

On top of that, after Rojas' defense in center field essentially broke defensive metrics because of how tremendous it was in 2023, it has disappointed this season. On the whole he has been fine patrolling center field, but because of his weaknesses as a hitter, the team needs him to be a massive positive as a defender, and he just has not been that in 2024.

The vision for Rojas was never that he would give the Phillies above-average offensive production in center field. But the team felt it could put up with his struggles at the plate because they had one of baseball's best and deepest lineups. As things stand now, though, the lineup is not nearly as strong as it was perceived to be: Nick Castellanos has been one of the least valuable players in baseball this season, Bryson Stott's numbers have been in free fall for weeks and J.T. Realmuto's knee injury has forced Garrett Stubbs and Rafael Marchán into the lineup on a daily basis. All of that makes it tougher to stomach Rojas failing to make significant offensive strides.

According to Matt Gelb of The Athletic -- who reported Sunday night that the team was considering demoting Rojas -- the team will likely begin to use platoons in both left field and center field: against right-handed pitchers, newcomer David Dahl will be the typical left fielder, with Brandon Marsh sliding to center field; with left-handed pitchers on the mound, Whit Merrifield will man left field and Cristian Pache will serve as the team's center fielder.

As much as this decision is about Rojas' offensive performance (or lack thereof), it also stems from the flexibility that his remaining minor league options give the team. There are clear pros and cons on the field when it comes to keeping or letting go all of Rojas, Merrifield, Pache and Dahl, but Rojas is the only one of those four who can be optioned to the minors.

These platoons will be met with heavy skepticism -- and rightfully so. The Phillies are putting a tremendous amount of trust in players who have not necessarily earned extensive playing time in 2024. These players -- particularly Pache, Dahl and Merrifield -- will be placed under a microscope for the next month and change as the 2024 MLB Trade Deadline nears, but so will Phillies President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski, who suddenly appears primed to add an outfielder or two to the bunch at some point between now and then.

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