Johan Rojas didn’t hit all spring but still claims center field on Opening Day roster

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CLEARWATER, Fla. — When Johan Rojas was 16, a friend gave him a gift. “It was like a treasure to me,” Rojas said. He did not have the money in the Dominican Republic to buy a brand-new glove. He was a teenage shortstop with big-league dreams. So this man, a friend of his trainer’s, purchased a crisp infielder’s glove. This was his first real glove.

It was blue and red.

“If you think about it, it is funny,” Rojas said recently. “It’s a big coincidence.”

Rojas made the Philadelphia Phillies’ roster, his first Opening Day assignment in the majors, and it was because of his glove. He hit .170/.200/.264 in 55 spring plate appearances. But he is the starting center fielder. He is considered an elite defender, one of the best center fielders in baseball, and an unfinished product at the plate.

This was the outcome the Phillies preferred when spring training started; team officials did not let Rojas’ lack of results in Grapefruit League games deter them. The Phillies have championship aspirations, and they will sacrifice offense for defense at one position in the lineup: their No. 9 hitter. It is not a preposterous tactic.

“He’s improving,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “As long as he doesn’t get buried, we’re a better team with him on the club. We are. Just because of the defense.”

The decision would have been easier had Rojas seen quicker results from his swing adjustments. But the Phillies believe in the 23-year-old outfielder. It is not an unequivocal belief. They kept Cristian Pache over Jake Cave, who was traded Sunday to the Colorado Rockies for cash considerations, because Pache will serve as insurance for Rojas. If the Phillies do not see enough offensive improvement from Rojas in a month or two, they could send him to the minors and at least retain some defense with Pache.

The Phillies finalized all business Sunday, a day before they depart Florida. They completed a one-year contract extension for reliable lefty reliever Matt Strahm that covers 2025, then shaped the edges of the Opening Day roster.

They will be without Taijuan Walker, who was diagnosed with inflammation from a right shoulder impingement. He will begin the season on the injured list. Once he is cleared to throw again, possibly later this week, it will take time to build his pitch count. Spencer Turnbull is the fifth starter, which opened bullpen jobs for Luis Ortiz, Yunior Marte and Connor Brogdon. Orion Kerkering is eligible to be activated April 9; he pitched in a minor-league game Sunday and hit 97 mph. The Phillies could have pushed it with Kerkering but exerted caution after his spring progression was interrupted by an illness.

The pitching decisions, even with Walker’s late-spring injury, were straightforward. Brogdon did not have a strong spring; injuries to others preserved his roster spot. The Phillies were concerned by Walker’s current state, and if anything, this gives them a longer runway to prepare him.

He could return sometime in May.

“I want to be out there,” Walker said. “A lot of times last year I wasn’t at 100 percent. That was a grind. It was a struggle to pitch like that. So this year, I want to be able to pitch at my best more times than not. If I have to take a little time in the beginning, then I have to do that, as much as I don’t want to. It pains me not to be out there with the boys. In the long run for myself, but also for the team, I think it’s going to be helpful.”

Turnbull will start the sixth game of the season. Zack Wheeler will pitch on regular rest in the fifth game.

By jettisoning Cave, the Phillies will enter the season with only one left-handed hitter on the bench: backup catcher Garrett Stubbs. Rojas and Pache have similar skill sets, and it might be redundant to have both on the roster. The Phillies were willing to prioritize the longer-term picture over a short-term need, a traditional lefty bench bat.

The way Thomson sees it, he’ll have either Whit Merrifield or Brandon Marsh on the bench as a potential substitute for Rojas in late-game situations that call for it. Merrifield, a righty hitter, has even splits over his career.

“If we need a pinch hit against a right-handed pitcher,” Thomson said, “and Marsh isn’t there, I’m more than comfortable with Merrifield.”

Whatever roster they carry into the season, of course, is subject to change. The Phillies were thrilled with Kody Clemens’ spring. He was the last cut in camp. He’s lefty-hitting depth at Triple A. So is David Dahl, who will play in Lehigh Valley’s outfield. Darick Hall is still on the 40-man roster. If the Phillies feel at some point they need a lefty bat on the bench, they could summon one of those players.

Pache profiles as a glove-first fifth outfielder who plays against lefties. That will be his role to begin the season. Pache cannot be sent to the minors without clearing waivers. The Phillies expected someone to claim him. They wanted more time with Pache, although with sparse playing time, it will be difficult to continue to refine his swing.

“He’s had good at-bats this spring, even against right-handed pitching,” Thomson said. “And he’s probably not in Rojas’ class, but he’s pretty close as a defender.”

Rojas implemented significant swing changes, as prescribed by hitting coach Kevin Long. Coaches told Rojas not to fixate on his Grapefruit League results. They wanted to see him put the ball in play more. They wanted to see him chase less. Rojas, in general, did that. He struck out twice over his final 29 at-bats in the Grapefruit League. The second strikeout came Sunday, and it was on a 3-2 pitch that was a ball but called a strike. Rojas saw 16 pitches in three plate appearances (one walk) in Sunday’s game, and Thomson pointed to that as progress.

“He’s an exciting player,” Thomson said. “He makes people nervous when he’s out there on the bases. Any way he can get on base is great. And if he can chew up pitches, he’s really good in that nine spot.”

It’s a risk, but one the Phillies have deemed worth taking. They were concerned Rojas would allow constant failure in the spring games to ding his confidence or sway him to ditch the swing adjustments. Did they see any signs of that?

“Nope,” Thomson said. “Not one bit.”

That is why the Phillies felt comfortable handing center field to Rojas. The onus is on the rest of the lineup to produce. That was always the gambit when the Phillies built this roster in the offseason. So, Rojas bats ninth beginning Thursday. The expectations are measured.

“All we want him to do is make sure he doesn’t get buried mentally and emotionally,” Thomson said. “If we can do that, we’re good.”

(Photo: Rich Storry / Getty Images)

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