In a week dominated by big, mostly bad baseball news, a good break for the Phillies: Josh Donaldson has agreed to terms with the Minnesota Twins.
Donaldson could have re-signed with the Atlanta Braves. Or he could have replaced Anthony Rendon with the Washington Nationals. Instead, the slugging third baseman took his 37 home runs and .521 slugging percentage in 2019 to the American League, making him the problem of pitchers other than Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, and Nick Pivetta, who gave up a total of five homers to him last season.
But the Phillies could have signed Donaldson, too, of course. They took a pass, just as they mostly sat out the free-agent derbies for Rendon and Mike Moustakas. And they aren’t among the most aggressive teams in trade talks for Kris Bryant and Nolan Arenado, either. At a time when the cream of the third-base crop is eminently available, the Phillies have turned inward.
Could there be any bigger compliment for top prospect Alec Bohm?
“For me, in this offseason, I didn’t really pay too much attention to who they were signing, what they were doing,” Bohm said Wednesday during a break in the Phillies’ annual development program for selected minor leaguers at Citizens Bank Park. “They have plenty of options for third base. I’m not focused on, ‘Oh, there’s an opening at my spot.’ I’m trying to prepare myself for the season, wherever that may be.”
More than likely, Bohm will start out at triple-A Lehigh Valley after playing the second half of last season at double-A Reading. But it's a matter of months or perhaps less before the 23-year-old first-round pick in the 2018 draft gets to the big leagues. General manager Matt Klentak recently said it's "reasonable to expect he will impact our major-league club at some point" this season.
Bohm’s potential -- he hit .305 with 21 homers in 540 at-bats between three levels of the minors last year -- and the need to infuse the roster and balance the payroll with more inexpensive homegrown prospects shaped the Phillies’ decision to not pursue third-base help. Instead, they allocated their resources to sign Wheeler and shortstop Didi Gregorius, and plan to open the season with either Scott Kingery or Jean Segura at third base.
But opinions about Bohm’s future, specifically his defense, vary wildly. While Klentak and minor-league director Josh Bonifay have lauded his improvement over the past year and stated their faith in his ability to play third base at the big-league level, many talent evaluators from rival clubs aren’t sold. Some have suggested that he will need to change positions. One National League evaluator who saw Bohm in the Arizona Fall League in October panned his defense as “horrendous.”
Bohm has heard the criticisms and concedes that his defense has been rough at times, especially as he transitioned from the artificial turf at Wichita State to dirt infields in pro ball. But he also stands by the work he has done to get better.
“In college, my first year coming out, the game would kind of speed up on me,” he said. “For me it’s really just the repetition, continuing to get comfortable, and over the course of the last year, it’s really slowed down for me. I made some errors out there, but looking back to the errors I made in the fall league, they were mostly balls I shouldn’t have even thrown. I was actually happy with how I played defense out there, even if the stats might not reflect that.”
Bohm committed four errors in 10 games at third base in Arizona after making 12 in 83 games during the minor-league season. He chalked up most of them to ill-advised throws, mental mistakes that can be corrected rather than physical limitations related to range or reaction time.
“I just think I was trying to make plays and see what I could do,” Bohm said. “I learned from that and now I know from that experience what throws I should make, what throws I shouldn’t make.”
A broader audience will make a reckoning of Bohm’s defense once he makes his inevitable big-league debut. For now, with spring training less than a month away, the path for him to take over at third base is so clear that the Phillies’ equipment truck can drive right through it.
“The support that Matt, Bonifay, everybody in the organization has given me, they’re confident in my ability as much as I am to play third base," Bohm said. “They’ve been a great help with that. I can see the improvements I’ve made, and I know I can improve even more.”