CLEARWATER, Fla. — As a 17-year-old, Johan Rojas was barely 5-foot-11 and had a swing that talent evaluators kindly described as “crude.” But those weren’t his biggest obstacles to signing with a major-league team.
“Where I’m from,” Rojas said through a translator, “there’s not many scouts in that area.”
Rojas grew up in the rural northeast of the Dominican Republic. His hometown, San Francisco de Macorís, has produced major-leaguers, even a few All-Stars. But for every Julián Javier and his son, Stan, there are dozens of talented players who reside in the south, near the capital city of Santo Domingo and adjacent San Cristóbal, and on the coast in La Romana and San Pedro de Macorís, the cradle of shortstops.
Those are the island’s baseball hotbeds, the places where teams deploy the most resources. And that’s Phillies Latin American scouting coordinator Carlos Salas’ best explanation for why the team was able to sign Rojas in 2018 for $10,000, a pittance compared to the multimillions conferred upon the highest-profile international prospects.
Four years later, it appears they got a steal. Rojas is a defensive dynamo in center field, a burner on the bases, the most talented all-around player in the farm system, and all but untouchable in trade talks.
Some club officials even think the 21-year-old will be in center field by next year. The Phillies may even be depending on it. After pushing past the luxury-tax threshold last week by doling out a total of $179 million last week for sluggers Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos, they need low-salary players in other spots on the field.
“I really believe he has a chance to be a Gold Glove center fielder,” manager Joe Girardi said. “I do. That’s really exciting because you think about wanting to have a really strong defense up the middle, right? He’s pretty special out there.”
Indeed, the Phillies believe Rojas has the range, speed, and arm to play center field in the majors right now, an opinion shared by some rival scouts. After he made a leaping catch at the wall in a spring-training game last March, Girardi told him, “You better win a Gold Glove. And if you don’t, I’m going to come after you.”
Rojas, a right-handed batter, remains a work in progress at the plate but has made improvements to his swing, according to Salas and Phillies international scouting director Sal Agostinelli. He’s a .280/.339/.421 hitter in three minor-league seasons, including a 22-for-64 (.344) tear over the final 17 games last year after getting promoted to high-A Jersey Shore.
If Rojas hits in the upper levels of the minors, he would loom as a possibility to take over center field in 2023 — and perhaps even sooner, especially since the Phillies are poised to begin the season with an Odúbel Herrera/Matt Vierling timeshare at the position.
“He’s a plus-defender for me, and I think he’s going to have more power than people think,” Agostinelli said by phone. “I think he has a chance.”
First, though, Rojas had to get noticed. Salas explained that most players from the northern part of the D.R. are stereotyped as instinctive rather than ultra-talented — “toolsy,” in the parlance of scouts. So, Rojas traveled to Santo Domingo for tryouts and spent a month working out for teams in San Pedro de Macorís.
“Nothing happened,” he said.
Salas credited scout Andrés Hiraldo for canvassing the northern part of the island and spotting Rojas, who ran the 60-yard dash in 6.5 seconds and impressed the Phillies with his athleticism. Despite his raw swing, he made enough contact in games to compel the Phillies to invite him to their Dominican academy in Boca Chica.
After two weeks, Salas called Agostinelli with a recommendation. “Listen,” Salas recalled saying, “this kid has tremendous tools and a great energy and a good makeup to play the game. It’s just a matter of the chance.”
“It’s really tough in a market where you spend millions of millions of dollars and you get a kid like Johan for $10,000,” Salas said. “This kid was not famous. We were pretty lucky and thankful for the opportunity to sign this kid.”
This season may represent Rojas’ biggest challenge. The Phillies recently have been unable to finish the development of their prospects, with many stalling in triple A or once they reach the majors. For three years in a row, they used a top-10 draft pick on an outfielder. Cornelius Randolph was a bust, while Mickey Moniak and Adam Haseley haven’t panned out.
The Phillies are focused on getting Rojas to hit fewer ground balls. It’s a tricky process. How much can they tinker with his swing without messing it up?
“It’s basically working on elevating [the ball]. That’s pretty much what they told me, what I’m working on,” Rojas said. “That’s one of the biggest focuses right now for me.”
But one National League scout cautioned that Rojas already has “sneaky power” that is likely still developing. Rojas has grown two inches and gotten stronger since he signed. Salas likened him to Teoscar Hernández, an All-Star outfielder who signed out of the D.R. with the Houston Astros for $20,000 in 2011 and emerged as a power threat after being traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in 2017.
Rojas is eyeing another comparison.
“Acuña,” he said, referring without a trace of immodesty to Atlanta Braves star Ronald Acuña Jr. “I love the way he plays — aggressive on the bases, aggressive on his swing, makes things happen on the field, 40 stolen bases, 40 home runs. I want to be like him. I want to be like Acuña.”
Said Salas: “I just cross my fingers that he could be that player. We’ve had a bunch of quality, good major-leaguers, but getting an All-Star player, you know how tough it is down here in this market?”
The Phillies got years of everyday play from César Hernández and Maikel Franco. They traded Jonathan Villar and Domingo Santana in deals for Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence, respectively. But Carlos Ruiz is the only international signee to become an All-Star with the Phillies since Juan Samuel in 1987.
Maybe the streak will end with Venezuelan center fielders Símon Muzziotti or Yhoswar García. Or with slugging outfielder Jhailyn Ortiz or infielder Luis García, who have struggled in the minors after signing out of the D.R. for $4 million and $2.5 million, respectively.
But Rojas appears to represent their best hope.
“I believe that right now, defensively, I can play in the major leagues,” Rojas said. “But I can’t jump from here to the major leagues right away. I’m just focused on whatever weaknesses I have, strengthening that before I go up. When the moment comes, the moment comes. I’m going to be prepared.”