Josh Bonifay heard the skepticism before ever meeting the player.
When Bonifay took over as the Phillies’ farm director 14 months ago, Alec Bohm was still the club’s most recent first-round pick. The scouting report, more or less: Tall, strong right-handed hitter and consensus best offensive player in the 2018 draft because of his combination of power and strike-zone awareness; needs work on his defense at third base; possibly a candidate for an eventual position change.
A year later, all that’s changed is Bohm's proximity to the big leagues.
Bohm zoomed through three levels of the minors this past season, reaching double-A Reading in June before playing in the Arizona Fall League and for Team USA in a pre-Olympic qualifier last month in Mexico and Japan. He paced Phillies minor leaguers in on-base percentage (.378) and slugging (.518) and tied for first in home runs (21). He’s expected to open the 2020 season at triple-A Lehigh Valley. A big-league call-up shouldn’t be far behind.
But opinions about Bohm’s defense still vary wildly. Two talent evaluators from National League teams recently expressed doubt over whether the 23-year-old can handle third base in the big leagues. A third rival evaluator, granted anonymity in order to speak openly, said Bohm "needs a lot of work defensively," panning him as "horrendous" during a six-game fall-league stretch in which he committed three errors.
Even some Phillies officials have concerns. All that really matters, though, is that general manager Matt Klentak and his top lieutenants regard Bohm as the future third baseman for a franchise with a lineage of homegrown All-Stars at the position, from Dick Allen to Mike Schmidt to Scott Rolen.
"We still view Alec Bohm as a third baseman,” Klentak said recently. “We did the day that we drafted him. I think it’s very reasonable that he could factor in for us next year.”
Put aside, for the moment, that the Phillies need Bohm, prized pitcher Spencer Howard and center fielder Adam Haseley to join Aaron Nola, Rhys Hoskins and Scott Kingery as homegrown figures in a rebuilding project that has centered around mostly trades and high-priced signings. There's risk in betting on Bohm in an offseason when so many free-agent third-base options existed, the Chicago Cubs' tires can be kicked on Kris Bryant's availability, and Klentak has declared that it's "time to win."
The Phillies’ faith in Bohm led them to pass on free agents Mike Moustakas and Anthony Rendon after they didn’t offer a contract last month to Maikel Franco, the opening-day third baseman for the last four years. They haven’t aggressively pursued Josh Donaldson, either. Instead, they signed veteran shortstop Didi Gregorius to a one-year, $14 million contract with the intention of moving either Kingery or Jean Segura to third base until Bohm is ready to come up.
The most common criticism of Bohm is his footwork. He appears to have the arm strength for third base. But while one of the NL talent evaluators who saw Bohm at Reading and later in the fall league reported that his “reactions and footwork are still inconsistent,” another posited that he “lacks agility.”
“I think he can stay at third base if he works really hard at it,” the second evaluator said. “His bat won’t play regularly at first base for me. He’s kind of a Wilmer Flores type.”
For the record, the Phillies have not considered a position change for Bohm, according to Bonifay. Bohm made a few starts at first base in the fall league, but only to maximize his at-bats. There hasn’t been any discussion of moving him to left field.
Like Klentak, Bonifay is bullish on Bohm’s growth as a third baseman. He said Bohm reported to the Phillies’ spring-training facility early last January, even buying a place in Clearwater, Fla., to get a head start on working with Juan Castro, the former infielder who tutored the Phillies’ minor leaguers last season before being promoted to new manager Joe Girardi’s staff for 2020.
“Alec was committed to staying at third base,” Bonifay said. “These kids, they hear the things that are being said about them. They want to prove something. To this point, I still haven’t seen any reason to question his ability at third base. I think he’s going to be fine.”
Bonifay cited Bohm’s oft-criticized footwork, “quick twitch” reactions, and “internal clock” for gauging the speed of the game as areas of improvement. In particular, he detailed an adjustment to Bohm’s pre-pitch routine designed to put him in a better position to make plays.
“He went from kind of a feet-on-the-ground [stance] at contact to now making sure that he’s prepared with a tiny hop, and he’s able to react much quicker,” Bonifay said during the winter meetings in San Diego. “His instincts have gotten a lot better just by paying attention to his pre-pitch. His angles on balls to the line, cutting off choppers, or deep balls to his left in the shortstop [hole] have gotten better. He’s gotten better at the bare-hand play. He’s gotten better with the slow roller. It’s just improved a lot in all those areas.”
The Phillies believe Bohm will continue to improve the more that he plays. They’re counting on it, in fact. With three players -- Bryce Harper, Zack Wheeler and Jake Arrieta -- making at least $20 million per year against the luxury tax, and given the likelihood of extension talks with catcher J.T. Realmuto, the Phillies need more balance on the lower end of the payroll spectrum with homegrown players such as Bohm, Howard and Haseley.
“I think, as important as anything," Klentak said, "our team needs to make sure we are giving opportunities to young players when the time is right and when those players deserve it.”