CHICAGO - Gabe Kapler, two months after last season’s disappointing finish, flew to Miami to check in with a player he hoped would play a big part in 2019.
The manager met in December with Odubel Herrera, who spent the winter in Florida working himself into a form that Kapler described in spring training as “a sturdier, more solid package than he was last year.” They set goals for the season and Herrera appeared motivated.
He then reported to spring training not only in impressive shape but weeks before the scheduled report date. Herrera, three years removed from being an All Star, seemed primed for a big year. Then the season started.
The struggles Herrera faced last season have followed him into 2019. Herrera, who started Monday night at Wrigley Field, entered it with a .637 OPS in the last calendar year dating back to May 20, 2018. It is the lowest mark by a current Phillies player and the 16th lowest by a major-league outfielder. Herrera entered Monday with just 12 hits in his last 66 at-bats and owns the lowest on-base percentage on the team.
He started last season as one of the hottest hitters in baseball -- .344 average, .411 on-base percentage, and .544 slugging percentage -- before fizzling out over the final four months. The Phillies’ failure to hold onto first place last summer wasn’t the only disappointing finish to the season.
“I do think the struggles look different than the struggles of last year,” Kapler said. “This year they seem more competitive. Last year there were times where he was just quite frankly not competitive in a lot of at-bats. This year it seems like he's a little bit closer.”
If Herrera’s offseason wasn’t enough, Kapler gave the outfielder some added motivation when spring training began by declaring a competition in center field. But that competition felt much more like a motivation tactic than a clear competition. Herrera was the team’s starting center fielder by the end of camp, but his struggles have now made that competition feel much more real.
Scott Kingery returned Sunday from the injured list and will see a decent amount of time in center field, especially against lefthanded pitching.
“How would I evaluate his performance? It can be better,” Kapler said. “There’s a better hitter in there than what he’s showed thus far. He’s a guy that can produce power. He can hit the ball into the gaps. He can be more consistent offensively.”
Kapler called on Herrera in the seventh inning Sunday against the Rockies. The Phillies had a runner on second with two outs, so Kapler inserted the player who appeared to be primed for big things six months earlier. Herrera smoked the ball 103.7 mph to the left-field corner, but it was caught.
“I don’t think you can do much better than come off the bench and drive a baseball like he did to the opposite field as well,” Kapler said. “I think that was a really encouraging sign.”
It was a bit of encouragement, but Herrera will need more than sharp line-outs to stay in the lineup. The goodwill he built this offseason has waned and the competition that was announced in spring training is ready to begin.
“It’s definitely something to keep an eye on and continue to monitor," Kapler said. "And something to be taken seriously and continue to examine ways to help him.
"Because right now, rather than be an evaluator, I think it’s important that we engage in being player development people. The major-league level is less about evaluating our players -- although that happens constantly -- and more about developing our players.
"So I’ve been thinking a lot about how to help Odubel emerge from this period of time where he hasn’t been as productive as we all know he can be and help him be the best version of himself.”