What Are the Phillies Going To Do in Center Field?

The Phillies' biggest question mark lies in center field, and their options to address the problem are few and far between.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 17: Brandon Marsh #16, Johan Rojas #18 and Nick Castellanos #8 of the Philadelphia Phillies celebrate after the Phillies defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks in Game 2 of the NLCS at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday, October 17, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

If the 2024 season started today, the Phillies would have Brandon Marsh in left field and Johan Rojas in center. Perhaps Cristian Pache would replace Marsh if the opposing team had a southpaw on the mound. Or maybe, though it seems unlikely, manager Rob Thomson would put Marsh in center and Jake Cave in left against a tough right-handed starting pitcher.

Whatever the exact configuration, the point remains the same: question marks abound in the Phillies outfield.

Part-Time Players in Full-Time Roles?

Dave Dombrowski traded for Marsh last summer, hoping to make him the full-time center fielder, but while his glove is good, it’s not elite. He has also struggled to hit same-handed pitching his entire career; last season was better, but his numbers were still below average. Thomson made it clear he didn’t often trust Marsh to face lefties, regularly benching him against southpaws.

Poor splits can fly if you’re playing top-notch center field defense. Not so much if you’re stuck in a corner spot, where the bar for offensive production is higher.

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Rojas, on the other hand, already looks like one of the best center field defenders in baseball. His legs are every bit as quick as his instincts, and his arm is surprisingly powerful. He was worth 6 OAA and a ridiculous 15 DRS last season in just 392 innings of work.

With Rojas in center and Marsh in left, Philadelphia’s outfield defense is a legitimate strength – strong enough that you can overlook Nick Castellanos and his subpar glove in right.

Yet Rojas hasn’t proven he can hit enough to warrant regular playing time. While his .302 batting average last season was impressive, his .410 BABIP was completely unsustainable. What’s more, his dismal walk-to-strikeout ratio ranked second last in the National League (min. 150 PA). Not to mention, Rojas was a black hole at the bottom of the lineup in the playoffs, going 4-for-43 with 15 strikeouts.

After Marsh and Rojas, Pache and Cave are serviceable depth options but nothing more. Pache is a glove-first (read: glove-only) fifth outfielder, while Cave is just keeping a spot on the bench warm until a better bat comes along.

An Upgrade for the Outfield

There is no denying the Phillies could use an upgrade in the outfield. Dombrowski has suggested as much himself.

At his end-of-season press conference, the president of baseball operations said, “I’m not going to anoint [Rojas] a position with our big league club next year. He has to be able to contribute some offensively or else then he has to go down and continue to develop.”

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Not long after, Jayson Stark of The Athletic reported the Phillies were “shopping for a right-handed-hitting corner outfielder who could be part of the left-field mix.” Such a move would push Marsh over into center field, at least part-time.

More recently, however, Dombrowski offered a new perspective, telling Todd Zolecki of MLB.com, “We also are in a position with Rojas where we’re really not trying to block his path to the big leagues.”

So, here’s the question: Has Dombrowski genuinely changed his mind about Rojas playing a regular role, or did he simply realize he’s running out of alternatives? After all, it’s not as if Rojas has faced any MLB pitching over the past three months.

The Phillies Are Running Out(field) of Options

If the Phillies are looking for a bona fide center fielder in free agency, the options are dwindling. Cody Bellinger is the only clear upgrade remaining on the market, but he’s going to cost an arm and a leg, likely pushing Philadelphia over the third luxury tax threshold when all is said and done. He’s also a lefty, and although his career platoon splits aren’t bad, the Phillies don’t need another lefty bat.

A more realistic alternative is Adam Duvall. He’s a right-handed power hitter who plays all three outfield positions, but he won’t command a huge salary or a multi-year deal. That said, he’s also 35 years old, inconsistent, and injury-prone. I’d rather have Duvall than Cave or Pache, but he can probably find another team willing to offer him more money and playing time than Philadelphia.

It’s a similar problem with Bellinger. He could be a good addition to the Phillies lineup at the right price, but there are bound to be other teams more desperate for his services and willing to pay far more than the Phillies would or should.

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Other outfield options on the free agent market include Jorge Soler, Joc Pederson, Michael A. Taylor, and Tommy Pham, none of whom is a good fit for Philadelphia.

Soler and Pederson are plus bats, but they’re primarily DHs at this point in their careers. Meanwhile, neither Taylor nor Pham is necessarily enough of an upgrade, if even an upgrade at all. I wrote about both of them last week, calling the pair “low floor, low ceiling” outfielders:

For teams in need of any outfield help they can get, Michael A. Taylor is a name to keep in mind. He’s a phenomenal defender, but even at his best, he’s a bottom-of-the-order bat. Still, his glove is strong enough that he can be a valuable everyday player in center field. 

Another option is Tommy Pham; he doesn’t excel on either side of the ball, but at least he won’t be a total liability. He’s an average-to-above-average hitter, and his glove is good enough to stick him in a regular role in an outfield corner. 

“The Free Agent Outfield Market Is Shrinking” (Jan. 9, 2024)

Trade Blocked

Unfortunately for the Phillies, the trade market doesn’t offer many more solutions.

Most of the teams with surplus big league outfielders to trade will be looking for MLB-ready pieces in return, and the Phillies don’t have much to offer in that department. It would take a huge package for Dombrowski to pry Randy Arozarena from the Rays or Chas McCormick from the Astros.

Dylan Carlson is a more realistic possibility, but still, it’s hard to picture who the Phillies have that the Cardinals would want in return.

Perhaps the Phillies could dangle Cristopher Sánchez as trade bait if they sign another starting pitcher, but that’s a whole other conversation – we’ll cross that bridge if we ever come to it.

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So, what are the Phillies going to do in center field? If Dombrowski’s recent comments are any indication, the answer might be a big, fat nothing – besides inking some minor league deals or upgrading the big league bench.

For the first time in seven years, the Phillies haven’t made a single noteworthy move to improve the major league roster. Call us spoiled, but the fanbase has gotten used to marquee signings and an ever-increasing payroll. An offseason without an upgrade? How boring. How disappointing. Dare I say, how Oakland.

This year, however, fans might have to accept that the team is already really, really good, even if it isn’t perfect. The Phillies can afford to enter the season with a question mark in center field, and considering the alternatives, they’re probably better off doing exactly that.