Rojas' new focus to secure Opening Day CF spot for Phillies

February 16th, 2024

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- returned to the Dominican Republic shortly after Game 7 of the 2023 NLCS.

He still felt terribly about how the Phillies lost.

So, he picked up a bat, stepped into the batting cage and started to hit. Now, this was not unusual behavior for Rojas. He loves to work, and he loves to hit every day in the offseason. But his work this winter carried more weight because the Phillies need him to hit enough in 2024 to keep his Gold Glove-caliber defense in center field.

The Phillies are counting on him. They will give him every opportunity to succeed.

But they said he must earn it. To protect themselves, the Phillies on Friday agreed to a one-year, $8 million contract with Whit Merrifield. If Rojas should stumble, could slide to center and Merrifield could see time in left.

“I learned the emotional part of the game last year,” Rojas said Friday afternoon at BayCare Ballpark. “You’re always going to have energy. But like in the postseason, you can’t try to do more than what you’re capable of doing.”

Rojas, 23, proved more than capable in 59 regular-season games as a rookie. He batted .302 with two home runs, 23 RBIs, 14 stolen bases, a .771 OPS and 111 OPS+. He compiled a remarkable plus-9 Outs Above Average, which tied for seventh among all outfielders in Major League Baseball. He posted 2.5 WAR, according to Baseball Reference. Only four Phillies rookies have been better as a rookie since 1988: (4.5 WAR in 1997), (4.1 in 2015), (3.4 WAR in 2003) and (3.1 WAR in 2005).

But in the postseason, Rojas batted .093 (4-for-43) with a .276 OPS and 15 strikeouts.

“I put pressure on myself,” he said. “If you’re going to play the game, just play the game.”

It is Rojas’ mindset this spring.

He enters Spring Training confident in part because of his work this winter. He said he started every day around 8:30 a.m. He finished around 3 p.m. He gained 11-12 pounds of muscle because he knew he needed to be stronger to succeed in the big leagues.

He worked on his offensive gains, too. Specifically, he worked on improved pitch recognition.

He had eyes on him every day. As Rojas hit this winter, Dominican Academy field coordinator Manny Amador often held up his phone to FaceTime Phillies hitting coach Kevin Long so Long could watch the session live.

For a couple months, Rojas hit with

There, Rojas worked with current and former big leaguers, including .

“Cano gave me some great advice,” Rojas said. “It’s pretty cool, and I’m going to start doing it. He said, ‘Write down five things.’ It can be anything, but it’s your goals for the day. Better swing decisions, sleeping better, whatever it is that will make you a better player.”

The Phillies hope the work and the improved mindset translates into consistent success, because they are excited about the possibility of having Rojas in center field and Marsh in left field for an entire season. The Phils were one of only three outfields in baseball last season to feature two players who ranked in the top 20 in Outs Above Average:

Phillies: Rojas (+9) and Marsh (+7)
Blue Jays: (+13) and (+11)
Brewers: (+8) and (+7)

“I think it’s huge,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said about a Rojas-Marsh outfield.

So what does Rojas need to show this spring to be the Phillies’ Opening Day center fielder?

“You look at the at-bats,” Thomson said. “Are the mechanics working properly? Is he seeing the ball? Is he swinging at good pitches? Is he chasing? In Spring Training, a guy could hit .200, but the at-bats are a lot better. It’s a lot of line drives, a lot of solid contact. I’m not going to look at it just based on numbers solely. It’s a lot more than that.”

The truth is the Phillies don’t need Rojas to post a .771 OPS like last season. They have enough firepower in the other eight spots to score enough runs. But if Rojas hits enough to stay in the lineup, he should be one of baseball’s best defenders.

Asked if he ever thinks about a Gold Glove, he smiled.

Then he shook his head.

“No, I’m not thinking I want to win a Gold Glove,” Rojas said. “Just play the game and win. That’s the best. That’s my focus.”