CLEARWATER, Fla. — There was a time not too long ago, and maybe that time was as recent as last year, when someone could have thought that the Phillies' starting outfield Sunday, in their 8-3 spring-training loss to the Yankees, would be their starting outfield for the foreseeable future. On manager Gabe Kapler's lineup card, Nick Williams was in left field, and one would have expected, by now, that Williams would be in consideration for one of the team's three regular outfield spots. And he is. But it was the players in the other two positions who gave you reason to wonder what might have been.
In center field was Roman Quinn. In right field was Dylan Cozens. Think back. Was it so unreasonable to think that they would be among the candidates to start in the Phillies' 2018 outfield? It was not unreasonable. Over their rises up the Phillies' farm system, Quinn had been dazzling people with his varied skills — his speed, his strong throwing arm, the pop in his bat — and Cozens still has as much pure power as any hitter in the organization. He hit 40 home runs at double-A Reading in 2016. There were expectations, for both of them, and it was fair to have them.
So what happened? A lot, all in one year. Injuries already strewn throughout his career – everything from a ruptured Achilles tendon to a concussion — Quinn suffered another last May, this time to the ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow. He appeared in just 45 games at triple-A Lehigh Valley. Cozens' health wasn't his problem at triple-A. His swing was. He tinkered all season with it, never getting comfortable, losing confidence. In 135 games, he had 27 home runs but batted just .210, with a sickly .710 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, and struck out 194 times in 476 at-bats.
Other things happened, of course. Rhys Hoskins unfurled his remarkable 50 games with the Phillies and handled the defensive responsibilities of left field well enough that the Phillies felt comfortable signing Carlos Santana to play first base. Aaron Altherr did enough to indicate that, if healthy, he, too, could be a mainstay in the lineup. Odubel Herrera had another plus-production season in center field. Williams, as a rookie, had 12 home runs and an .811 OPS over 343 plate appearances.
These are the kinds of developments that happen during a rebuild, assuming a team is patient and thorough throughout the process, and they aren't necessarily predictable. You give young players chances to fail and chances to succeed, and you watch and wait to see who rises and falls. There were questions about Herrera's and Williams' maturity. There are still some questions about Altherr's durability and Hoskins' realistic potential as a hitter. They have answered some of them, perhaps most of them, but this much is sure: They answered a few more questions than either Quinn or Cozens did.
Now those two get another opportunity to impress, to demonstrate progress. Cozens, a former Division I football recruit, is 6-foot-6 and nearly 270 pounds, and he has spent these early weeks of camp working closely with Charlie Manuel and the Phillies' new hitting coach, John Mallee. Their goal is to get Cozens to ease up on his swing, to maintain more control of his bat through the strike zone, to see better results at Lehigh Valley and take things from there. He went 1-for-2 Sunday, striking out in his first at-bat and lining a double to right field in his second.
"[Mallee's] getting me back to how I felt in 2016 with that same swing, those same mechanics," Cozens said. "That's really what we're trying to focus on: the movements in my swing that are natural. I'm not trying to change that. I'm sticking with that and working also on two-strike approach and having a couple of different swings that have different objectives. Don't just be a football player who's trying to do some damage. With Charlie as well, they've taken me under their wing. They've treated me like I'm one of theirs."
Quinn, in a way, has a simpler goal. "I just want to play a full season," he said before going 0-for-1 with a walk and a run scored against the Yankees. "That's where I'm at. Whether it's here in the big leagues or at triple-A, wherever it is, I'm going to try to stay healthy." Even though he missed most of last season, he considers himself blessed, he said, that he injured his left elbow, not his right. He throws with his right arm, and a similar injury to a ligament in that elbow would have required surgery, instead of merely the platelet-rich-plasma injections he receives to treat his left. If he does no further damage to himself — and that seems always an open question with him — he could fit in as the Phils' fifth outfielder.
"I don't think we have another piece like Quinny on our roster," manager Gabe Kapler said. "He gives us a lot of versatility, a very dynamic, athletic presence, a good all-around athlete. Who knows what happens at the end of March, but he's certainly putting his best foot forward, and we think the world of Quinny."