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September 18, 2023

Phillies' plan for outfield this postseason is murky — but it could be worse

The Phillies will need to decide which of their "extra" outfielders will be relied on in October.

Phillies MLB
0101_09132023_Phillies_Braves_Johan-Rojas.jpg Kate Frese/Kate Frese for PhillyVoice

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 13: A photo from the Philadelphia Phillies game against the Atlanta Braves on September 13, 2023 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. (Photo by Kate Frese/PhillyVoice)

Phillies President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski’s team entered last August’s trade deadline with a 57-49 record, good for second place in the packed National League Wild Card standings. Despite having considerably more blue-chip talent than many of their competitors, the Phillies had yet to separate themselves from the pack.

As Bryce Harper became acclimated with playing first base and Kyle Schwarber’s primary position going from left field to designated hitter, adding an outfielder seemed like the obvious move to bolster Manager Rob Thomson’s lineup.

Dombrowski, often recognized for his aggressiveness in the trade market, took a patient, measured approach to the deadline. 

After weeks of projections that the team would add an everyday position player, the team only added one hitter, infielder Rodolfo Castro, sending Triple-A starting pitcher Bailey Falter to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The team’s only offensive addition being Castro, a utility infielder whose primary skill is hitting left-handed pitching, signaled a belief that a solution to the outfield problem could come from within.

“We really decided that we really were going to have to be enamored with a name that was out there,” Dombrowski said on The Athletic’s Starkville podcast. “We can win with this group.”

A few players served as potential internal fixes: Jake Cave, Johan Rojas and Cristian Pache. But between the three players, an obvious frontrunner has not emerged in the race to join Nick Castellanos and Brandon Marsh in the outfield against right-handed pitching. Meanwhile, Marsh — whose offensive improvement has been one of the most impressive developments of the season for the Phillies — still struggles mightily against left-handers, with an OPS nearly 200 points lower against lefties than against righties.

The last several weeks and the next few are serving as times for Cave, Pache and Rojas to audition for postseason plate appearances. So far, the results have been mixed. 

Jake Cave

Cave — the team’s Opening Day starter in left field — crushed Triple-A pitching to the tune of a 1.113 OPS over the summer after his dominant Spring Training was followed up by a disappointing first month of the regular season. Cave has much more major league experience than the youngsters, including two seasons as an above average hitter. In his finest moments, he looks the part: a lefty hitter who barrels the ball and plays good defense in the outfield.

However, theoretical upside can only entice a team for so long. Cave’s two best seasons were in 2018 and 2019. From the start of 2020 until present day, he has a .629 OPS. Since being recalled from Triple-A in July, Cave has slashed .235/.283/.418, and according to FanGraphs’ weighted runs created plus metric (wRC+), he has been exactly a league-average hitter against right-handed pitching in his major league career — and well below that against lefties. While he hits the ball hard, plays a solid left field and can fill in at first base in a pinch, he is essentially a lefty platoon bat that is still unremarkable against righties. That’s not the description of a guy a team is thrilled about having in their postseason lineup.

Cristian Pache

In a small sample, Pache has mashed lefty pitching this season, slashing .326/.380/.587. He is outstanding in the field, able to man any outfield position the Phillies ask him to and do so at an elite level. In his limited action, he has been all the Phillies could have asked for between his impressive defense and pleasantly-surprising offensive production. On the surface, he seems like a lock to be in the lineup against lefties come October.

However, just about all other measures of his major league offense to date suggest that he should be a defensive replacement against quality pitching. In his first three years as a major leaguer, Pache put up an OPS of just .439, considerably below replacement level. And while it is clear that he has made important strides at the plate in 2023, entrusting him with a major role based on a sample size of just 72 plate appearances could be dangerous.

Pache will likely continue to see action over Marsh against some left-handers in the final weeks of the regular season. Whether or not Rob Thomson will have faith in him in October remains to be seen.

Johan Rojas

It was a bit of a surprise when Rojas was promoted to the majors from Double-A in July, but he quickly proved he belonged. A stint in Philadelphia that was supposed to last a few weeks will instead last a few months through the end of the season, and likely into October. Rojas’ outstanding center field defense has produced highlight after highlight, including a phenomenal 8-3 double play he pulled off on his first play as a big leaguer.

Outside of his wizardry in center field, Rojas’ strongest attribute in this discussion is his versatility. While Cave typically only plays against right-handed pitchers and Pache similarly is set up to face left-handers, Rojas is viable against either. As a right-handed hitter, his numbers are a bit better against southpaws, but his production against righties is not far off. 

Another element Rojas adds to the equation that the others do not is elite baserunning. Pache and Cave both run well, but Rojas is a different animal: his Statcast data suggests he is in the 95th percentile in sprint speed among all major leaguers, which makes him a dangerous weapon when he gets on. That game-changing speed becomes especially valuable when factoring in that Rojas typically hits ninth: when he reaches base and turns into a chess piece, it sets up the team’s best run producers at the top of the order to do damage.

There is risk to utilizing Rojas on an everyday basis against good pitching, though. He could be overexposed at the plate, as he remains a work in progress at the major league level. If the Phillies’ best hitters are able to do the heavy lifting as they did in the postseason last year, it would be easier to stomach Rojas’ below average bat and appreciate his elite glove. But if the team finds itself needing an offensive spark, it is hard to imagine that coming from Rojas, who has just nine extra-base hits in the majors— one of which being his lone home run, which he hit off a position player.

At this juncture, it is a fool’s errand to project who will man left and center field in each game once the Wild Card Round commences. That makes the next two weeks critical for Cave, Pache and Rojas, as they each look to take the reins.

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