The stage of the news conference in December 2016 was adorned with two T-shirts, perhaps an appeal from the Phillies to last-minute shoppers just a week before Christmas.
The team announced that it had signed Odubel Herrera to a $30.5 million extension after he played just two seasons. It was an exciting day, general manager Matt Klentak said, and the Phillies celebrated by printing gear with Herrera’s likeness — the image of him pounding his helmet with his fists — printed on the front.
"For a young team like ours, the culture we’re trying to build, the style of play that this young man produces on the field is something that’s very important to this franchise,” Klentak said then.
Three years later, much has changed. Klentak called Herrera on Tuesday to inform him that he no longer had a major-league role with the Phillies. Herrera, once seen as a key part of the team’s future, was designated for assignment. He was removed from the 40-man roster, but his tenure with the Phillies is not yet over and there remains a likelihood that the outfielder will report next month to Clearwater, Fla., for spring training.
Herrera, 28, has not played since he was arrested last Memorial Day and charged with assault after his girlfriend sought out security at Atlantic City’s Golden Nugget casino and said she had been attacked in their hotel room. The police report said “handprint markings” were found on her neck, in addition to scratches. In July, she declined to press charges, and the judge dismissed the case. Major League Baseball suspended him for the remainder of the season.
The Phillies will place Herrera on waivers later this week, which he will likely clear because a team would have to pay the remaining $21 million that Herrera is owed. The Phillies will have to decide whether to release Herrera or outright him to triple A, which appears to be the most likely scenario.
Herrera could refuse a minor-league assignment, but he would have to forfeit his salary. Instead, he is set to be the highest-paid player in minor-league spring training with $6.5 million counting against the team’s luxury tax for the next two seasons. The Phillies could decide to release him later in spring training.
“It can be difficult to boil it down to just one thing,” Klentak said Tuesday when asked why Herrera’s on-field performance declined. “In the first couple years of the big leagues, we saw his speed and athleticism and defense as really impactful. Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen some regression in his speed, athleticism, and defense. At times in his career, you’ve seen Odubel really lock in at the plate and give great at-bats, work walks, and foul off pitches and stay really engaged. Other times, we’ve seen him go through longer stretches of prolonged slumps. More than anything, what has been a challenge for Odubel has been finding consistency.”
The Phillies were motivated to remove Herrera from the 40-man roster — thus keeping him out of major-league spring training — because of his arrest, but they had to prove that the transaction was done for baseball reasons. The league’s collective bargaining agreement bars teams from doubly penalizing a player who was already penalized, which Herrera was last season with an 85-game suspension.
Finding a baseball reason did not prove difficult. Herrera, once an All-Star, hit just .222 last season with a .629 OPS. He had a .218 average over the last calendar year before his arrest. Herrera was replaced by Scott Kingery in the starting lineup a week before his arrest. Adam Haseley already has been named this season’s starting centerfielder.
The Phillies acquired Jay Bruce last June, and he joins Roman Quinn ahead of Herrera on the outfield depth chart. Herrera was the team’s lowest-ranked outfielder before he was replaced on the 40-man roster by Nick Martini, a 29-year-old lefthanded hitter who spent most of last season with Oakland’s triple-A team.
“The outfield construction is very different,” Klentak said. “On top of that, Odubel wasn’t very good for the first couple months of last year. More than anything, this is a baseball decision.”
The Phillies acquired Herrera as a Rule 5 draft pick before the 2015 season. He had primarily been an infielder and had yet to move past double A, but he left his first spring training as the team’s starting center fielder. He was the team’s best hitter that season and was an All-Star in 2016, leading the Phillies both seasons in WAR.
Herrera could not become a free agent until after the 2020 season, but after his second season, Klentak wanted to guarantee that his popular, young outfielder would stay through at least 2021 on a contract then deemed to be a bargain price. But those first two seasons proved to be Herrera’s peak.
He was inconsistent in 2017, struggled mightily in the second half of 2018, and was transitioned to a bench role early in 2019 before his arrest. Herrera is still with the Phillies, but it is clear that he no longer has a role with the team. And that was hard to imagine when the team was printing T-shirts and celebrating what they deemed to be an exciting day.
“It hasn’t played out exactly as we would have hoped,” Klentak said.