CLEARWATER, Fla. — Odubel Herrera paints his toenails. The nails on his big toes were lime green last week, in anticipation of St. Patrick’s Day.
“I think I’ll have them painted yellow next,” Herrera said Saturday.
He was due for a pedicure Monday. The green was creeping away from his toes and the base of the nails was starting to show. He indulges himself about every two weeks, to keep his feet healthy and his nails strong, and he hits every digit, even though you can’t tell, because he applies clear polish to the other eight. You can’t blame him. As the Phillies’ center fielder, his feet take a pounding. This is doubly true during spring training.
But he didn’t get his pedicure Monday. It wasn’t necessary. He’d hardly used his feet in the past three weeks.
Herrera strained his left hamstring while running the bases during drills on Feb. 20. Eight days later, second baseman Cesar Hernandez joined him in the trainer’s room with a strained right hip flexor.
Hernandez returned Thursday. Herrera came back Friday. The Phillies sighed in relief.
Herrera and Hernandez played Monday at the Cardinals and will play tomorrow at the Astros, and having missed the bulk of the schedule so far, they will hasten to sharpen themselves. Entering Monday’s game, Hernandez has one hit and a walk in 12 plate appearances. Herrera, who had one hit in three minor-league rehab appearances, looked sharp in his spring debut Saturday, with a double and a walk as the designated hitter. He played in the field for the first time Monday, starting in center field.
“He’s gonna rake,” said Charlie Manuel, the Phillies’ hitting savant emeritus.
The importance of their returns cannot be overstated. If healthy and effective, Hernandez and Herrera make the Phillies more than just a pretty face in the National League East. They make the Phillies’ lineup, and the defense up the middle, as good as any in the loaded National League East.
“The middle is the heart of the team. The biggest part,” Hernandez said.
The Phillies upgraded their lineup this winter, adding catcher J.T. Realmuto and shortstop Jean Segura, as well as corner outfielders and former MVPs Bryce Harper and Andrew McCutchen.
But there’s no telling what the team will get from its starting rotation after Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta. And while David Robertson will bolster the talent level in the bullpen, the only other predictable, healthy arm there belongs to Pat Neshek, and neither of them is expected to be a full-time closer. And Citizens Bank Park remains every hitter’s dream and every pitcher’s nightmare.
So if the Phillies figure on making it the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons, they’re going to have to score runs, a category in which they’ve ranked no higher than eighth among the 15 National League teams in any of those seven seasons.
Hernandez, 28, has been the Phillies’ best player since 2015, with a .278 average and a .361 on-base percentage, mainly batting leadoff. If Hernandez is in the No. 1 hole, McCutchen, who averaged 88 RBIs from 2011-17, can bolster the second half of the lineup. Hernandez’s understudy is Scott Kingery, who hit .226 last season, with a ghastly on-base percentage of .267.
Herrera has been the Phillies’ most enticing player since 2015, a 2016 All-Star with exceptional outfield range.
If the two perform to their potential, the Phillies should both score enough runs and play good enough defense to mitigate their unproven rotation and their unsettled bullpen.
“How can we be our strongest up the middle?" manager Gabe Kapler said. "Super-strong with J.T. Went out and got an All-Star shortstop. Second base is Cesar’s.”
What about Herrera? With him, the Phillies are playing a transparent game of carrot-and-stick. They announced that Herrera would compete for the starting spot. His competition: Roman Quinn, who is an intriguing prospect, but who is injured (again), and Aaron Altherr, a gifted athlete with a hole in his swing you could drive a lawn mower through.
“It would be excellent for our team," Kapler said, "if Odubel grabbed ahold of center field and made it his.”
Well, yes. Indeed it would.
Herrera hit .288 in his first three seasons. He hit .255 last season, but with a career-high 22 home runs. Herrera’s lapses in the field and on the basepaths have eroded the Phillies’ patience with him. They insisted he improve his fitness and his focus this offseason, and they promised him nothing for 2019. Hence, the competition charade.
Quinn is a better centerfielder, and he’s faster, but he’s battled toe, hip, and elbow injuries, and he’s almost certain to open the season on the disabled list with his second oblique injury as a professional. Altherr, 28, is a fluid fielder, but he also has been injured. He remains relevant because he sandwiched a .272 season between his .197 in 2016 and his .181 in 2018.
Neither has the potential to produce like El Torito, the 5-foot-11, 200-pound little bull with the manicured hooves.
Now 27 and entering his fifth season, Herrera has a quirky charm that is starting to wear thin. The team needs consistent results.
All-Star results, perhaps.
“Of course, I’d like to be an All-Star again,” Herrera said. "I just want to play hard, have a beautiful season and win. Make the playoffs. It’s important. An important year. I’ve got to get healthy to help my team.