What Rojas' demotion means for Phillies' outfield, his future

June 17th, 2024

PHILADELPHIA -- It was no secret that Phillies shortstop would make his long-awaited return on Monday. The only lingering question was who would be removed from the active roster to create a spot.

That answer came when the club activated Turner and optioned starting center fielder to Triple-A Lehigh Valley prior to Monday's series opener against the Padres at Citizens Bank Park.

“He took it very well, very professionally,” manager Rob Thomson said. “I think he's going to go down there and work at it.”

The decision was not as easy as picking one player to send to Lehigh Valley and keeping everyone else.

Among the potential candidates, David Dahl, Cristian Pache and Whit Merrifield would have had to clear waivers before being sent to Triple-A. It's unlikely any would have gone unclaimed -- and Dahl and Merrifield would have had the option to decline a demotion even if they cleared waivers.

That left Rojas, who had Minor League options remaining, as the only option that allowed the Phillies to keep everyone in the organization for the time being. For now, Philadelphia will roll with a pair of platoons: Brandon Marsh and Pache in center, and Dahl and Merrifield in left.

The Phils will also test out Edmundo Sosa -- who played well at short in Turner's absence -- in left field as a way to potentially keep his bat in the lineup. Sosa took some pregame work in left field on Monday and will continue doing so in the coming days.

Of course, the roster move wasn't solely because of Rojas' remaining options.

The 23-year-old is slashing .235/.271/.295 over 196 plate appearances in 58 games this season. His .566 OPS ranked 218th out of 228 players with 175 plate appearances entering Monday.

“There were some things we explained to him that he needed to do: Cut down his swing, use the field and be able to bunt,” Thomson said. “Those are the things that we need, because if he's doing what he can do on offense -- which is just be a table setter, really -- with him playing center field, that's probably the best version of our club.”

The Phillies came into Spring Training this year hoping Rojas would hit well enough to earn the everyday center-field job out of camp. Though he hit .302 with a .771 OPS in 59 regular-season games in his debut season last year, Rojas was exposed in the postseason, when he went just 4-for-43 (.093) with 15 strikeouts.

He hit only .170 with a .478 OPS in Spring Training. The Phillies also had him work extensively on bunting this spring -- both in sacrifice situations and for hits -- but that project also hasn’t come along as planned. Rojas’ bunt attempts grew scarce over the past few weeks and his only bunt base hit all season came on April 13.

“He wasn't getting them down,” Thomson said. “So he needs to do it in a game, and there's probably a little less pressure and a better opportunity to do it at Triple-A.”

Still, Rojas’ elite defense was enough to offset the offensive concerns entering the season.

Despite playing only 59 games last season, Rojas ranked fourth among all center fielders with 15 Defensive Runs Saved. While he's played above-average defense this season, he has mixed in a few defensive lapses amid his highlight-reel grabs. Rojas ranks outside the top 15 among center fielders in both DRS and Outs Above Average.

All that aside, the Phillies could also use more offense right now.

After leading the Majors with 5.2 runs per game and ranking fourth with a .749 team OPS through the end of May, the Phils have averaged just four runs while posting a .673 OPS in 13 games this month.

They are hoping the return of Turner -- who was hitting .343 with an .852 OPS before he strained his hamstring on May 3 -- will help.

Rolling with a more offensive-minded outfield could also provide a boost.

While there’s no question the Phillies are sacrificing some defense without Rojas in center and Marsh in left, they should gain some offense with Marsh (.760 OPS) in center and Dahl (four extra-base hits in eight games) or Merrifield (5-for-14 with a homer and five RBIs in his past four starts) in left.

But if Rojas makes the improvements the Phillies are hoping, could he still factor into the mix down the stretch this season?

“Absolutely,” Thomson said. “As I said, if he’s doing the things that we want him to do, then with him playing center field, I believe that’s the best version of our club.”