CLEARWATER, Fla. — Center field was a fascinating position for the Phillies a year ago for a variety of reasons.
It was also the team’s second weakest link. When the year started, Odubel Herrera was the Phillies’ center fielder and there was some reason to believe the position could be a strength, even though the former Rule 5 draft pick had endured a dreadful final four months the year before.
Herrera’s four-month dip in production in 2018, however, turned into a monstrous, six-month free fall during April and May of 2019 and, just when you thought things could not get any worse, he was arrested inside an Atlantic City hotel and casino on domestic abuse charges following a Memorial Day incident involving his girlfriend.
A suspension handed down by commissioner Rob Manfred ended Herrera’s season and possibly his Phillies career, although he is back here in Clearwater and will begin his attempt to make a comeback when the team’s minor-league camp opens this month.
The Phillies’ initial solution to the loss of Herrera was to have Scott Kingery and Andrew McCutchen split time in center field, since Kingery also took playing time away from Maikel Franco at third base, which was the weakest link in the lineup last season.
That solution lasted less than a week because of McCutchen’s season-ending ACL injury in San Diego.
Plan C: Bring up Adam Haseley, who went from double-A Reading to triple-A Lehigh Valley to the big leagues faster than Usain Bolt can run 100 meters. OK, it actually took seven days, which was a marathon compared with the amount of time it took Haseley to land on the injured list after his big-league debut. That took only two days. He went down with a strained groin.
Speaking of fast, speedster Roman Quinn might have been the original solution to the Herrera problem, but he was stuck in a familiar place at the time -- the injured list. He had opened the year on the IL with an oblique strain, and returned in mid-April for a week only to end up back on the IL with a strained groin.
All these soft-tissue problems eventually led to the exit of longtime trainer Scott Sheridan, who had been with the club for 13 years.
Haseley and Quinn both eventually returned and combined to start 59 games in center field last season. Quinn would have started more, but he ended up on the injured list a third time in mid-August when he suffered another groin injury.
Kingery led the Phillies with 59 starts in center field last season, but it appears that new manager Joe Girardi wants to see if he can get the most out of his most versatile player by keeping him at one position (second base) this season.
Haseley has come to camp as the leading candidate to take control of center field, and the eighth overall pick in the 2017 draft gave the Phillies reason for optimism during his rookie season, especially during the final month, when he hit .282 with a .351 on-base percentage. He also impressed with his glove, making one of 2019′s greatest plays by robbing Freddy Galvis of a home run at Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark.
“The last couple weeks of September, I was just kind of in a groove,” Haseley said. “It felt like I was putting together good at-bats and playing good defense. It felt like I had slowed the game down at this level for the first time and played the game the way I wanted.”
Haseley, 23, has come to camp wanting to show more of the same.
“On the field, there feels like even more anticipation than when I was in the big-league clubhouse for the first time a year ago,” he said. “I can feel myself giving even more effort. I’m not trying to impose more pressure on myself, but I have that attitude that I want to be here with the guys I finished last season with.”
Quinn, 26 and entering his ninth season in the Phillies’ organization, has a modest and narrow goal.
“My only goal is to stay healthy,” he said.
To that end, he spent this offseason working out at a new facility near his home in Florida and was in constant communication with Phillies strength and conditioning coach Paul Fournier and new trainer Paul Buchheit. He’s hoping to avoid things like muscle strains and groin pulls.
“I feel like if I can stay healthy, everything else will take care of itself and I’ll be able to go out there and do what I do,” Quinn said. “Last year was tough mentally, man. I had three injuries and the toughest thing about that is trying to find a rhythm. You can’t get into a rhythm when you keep getting hurt and I felt like I finally had last year and then another injury happened.”
Quinn hit .333 with a .418 on-base percentage and three home runs in his final 17 games of last season and he stole eight bases in eight attempts during his 44 games. There’s reason to believe that he could steal 50 bases or more if he can stay healthy for an entire season. Think Billy Hamilton with a better bat.
With Haseley and Quinn, the Phillies have legitimate hope that center field could be a pleasant surprise for them in 2020.
And, by the way, the early reports on Herrera are that he is in great shape and determined to make a comeback. That’s unlikely, but the Phillies’ 2019 season was proof that lots of unlikely things can happen over the course of a 162-game season.