Joe Girardi is determined to let the Phillies’ center-field competition play out until the end, but the truth is that the end is not near.
Sure there is a deadline for setting the 26-man roster that will line up along first-base line at Citizens Bank Park ahead of the Phillies’ April 1 season opener against the Atlanta Braves. Yes it’s an honor to be part of the opening-day roster, but it does not come with a guarantee that you’ll still be around in the middle of the summer.
“That’s what I tell the guys always,” Girardi said after a recent exhibition game. “There are going to be some people who are disappointed, and I get that. I would expect them to be disappointed, but you have a chance to change that. You’re the one who has a chance to change that by going out and performing at the highest level and if you do that you’re going to have a chance to make an impact on this team.”
That should be great news for the two guys who appear least likely to be on the opening-day roster. One of them, of course, is Mickey Moniak, the first overall pick from the 2016 draft who has already been erased from the spring-training competition.
Moniak, in fact, might have been the biggest winner in the competition because of the favorable impressions he left with Girardi and team president Dave Dombrowski.
“Oh, I think he’s an everyday player in the big leagues,” Girardi said after the Phillies sent Moniak to the minor-league camp Tuesday. “Mickey was very impressive in camp, and we’re excited about his future.”
While Girardi had seen Moniak before, it was Dombrowski’s first look at the 22-year-old outfielder who has encountered some serious struggles in his attempt to climb the minor-league ladder.
“With [Adam] Haseley getting hurt, it really opened up some things for Mickey Moniak, and we liked what we saw,” Dombrowski said. “We think he can be an everyday player, but we don’t think he’s ready for that yet.”
Unfortunately for Moniak and all of the minor-leaguers, he is going to have wait until May to start proving himself against opposing competition, but his organizational standing appears to be at its highest point since his first professional season.
Odubel Herrera is sure to be dejected if he does not make the opening-day roster, but, by his own doing, the odds were somewhat stacked against him from the start. After missing the last four months of the 2019 season while serving an 85-game suspension following a Memorial Day domestic violence arrest, Herrera also sat idly through the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
This spring training was his chance to prove he was a better and more mature person and also that he could still play the game of baseball. He has done both, but he needed to be sensational to win the center-field job, and, unless he catches fire in the final days down in Florida, he has not separated himself from the pack.
Going into Thursday night’s game against the New York Yankees, Herrera had just three hits in his last 20 at-bats and was hitting .225 with a .244 on-base percentage. Herrera has shown power and bat speed by hitting three home runs, but the biggest checkmark against him in a competition that no one has grabbed is the fact that he’s not on the 40-man roster.
The Phillies are likely going to have make room on the 40-man roster for outfielder Matt Joyce and possibly two relievers, so by starting Herrera at the alternate-site camp at Lehigh Valley, they do not have to relinquish another spot. Eventually Herrera will get a chance to prove his worth with the Iron Pigs, which is surely not his dream scenario. It is, however, a lot better situation than he was in a year ago. The rest is up to him.
The same can be said for the three members of the center-field competition who figure to be on the roster opening day. Roman Quinn is likely to be the opening-day center fielder for the second straight season, but it is clear he needs to follow the mandate put down by his manager. Girardi wants Quinn to cut down on his strikeouts and use his speed to get on base more often. It makes perfect sense. Quinn has stolen 30 bases in 35 career attempts, including 20 for 20 over the last two seasons, but his most lethal weapon is only useful if he consistently gets on base.
The tops of batting orders used to be filled with guys who could get on base a lot via the single or walk, then steal second and often even third. That’s what Girardi wants from Quinn at the bottom of his order. To Quinn’s credit, he has given the Phillies a glimpse of that style in recent weeks.
In all likelihood, the center-field situation will be a platoon at the start of the season just as it was at the start of last season.
To the credit of Haseley and the training staff, the Phillies’ 2017 first-round pick reemerged in the center-field competition Tuesday after suffering a groin injury that appeared as if it was going to land him on the injured list to open the season.
Girardi made it clear that Haseley can still be a part of the opening-day roster.
“No, I don’t think it’s a stretch to think that,” the manager said.
Like Quinn, Haseley has much to prove this season after starting just four of the team’s final 16 games in 2020 as the Phillies unsuccessfully tried to nail down a playoff spot. The fact that he had just five extra-base hits and no home runs was disappointing, but coming into camp he was considered by many in the organization as the favorite to win the center-field job. He can still claim it if he gets off to a hot start.
Scott Kingery is also likely to make some starts in center field, but his roster security has never been more precarious and is probably only safe because he has a big contract and can play multiple positions.
The Phillies seemed willing to dismiss his dreadful 2020 season as the result of a very serious midsummer bout with COVID-19, but the fact that he has continued to struggle in spring training is concerning.
“It comes down to production at our level,” Girardi said. “I know Scotty has power and I don’t want to take that away, but I also want him to get on base. I think that’s really important because he does have that speed element. But it really comes down to production in this game and sometimes that is a hard, cold fact. In the minor leagues it is about development. Here, it is about production and however he can get on base that’s what I want him to do.”
Nobody, as it turned out, took control of the center-field competition in spring training, and even if they had, the competition was always going to continue once the games started counting.