LAKELAND, Fla. - He was wearing a blue T-shirt and red headphones and Fraggle-ish dreadlocks that a few minutes earlier had earned him the nickname "mop-head" from one of his teammates. But it was the white smile on Odubel Herrera's face that commanded the attention of the eye as he stood in a hallway of cinder block and poured cement at Joker Marchant Stadium yesterday afternoon.
He had spent the previous few minutes dissecting his day with his usual playful demeanor: slicing a double off Justin Verlander, legging out an infield single, scoring from second on an error, whiffing on his first-ever attempted catch as a leftfielder (the last of which drew a rueful chuckle). Then somebody mentioned two of the men who watched from the dugout as it all went down.
"I wouldn't call it nervous - almost amazed," Herrera said after the Phillies' 6-5 win over the Detroit Tigers. "Those were my heroes growing up."
Of all the great ballplayers to come out of the tiny country of Venezuela, Miguel Cabrera and Omar Vizquel are two of the greatest. Neither was in the lineup yesterday: Cabrera had the day off and Vizquel is a coach. But for Herrera, the opportunity to perform in front of them was just another reminder of how much his life has changed since the Phillies selected him in December's Rule 5 draft.
With 3 weeks to go before Opening Day, the 23-year-old infielder-turned-outfielder is about as close to a lock for a roster spot as a player can get without owning a guaranteed deal. Even if the Phillies did not have to keep him on the active roster in order to keep him in the organization - once a Rule 5 pick is removed from the roster, he must be offered back to his initial team, in this case, the Rangers - Ryne Sandberg would have a difficult time finding a better option for his bench. On an offense that entered yesterday ranked last in the majors in on-base percentage (.260), slugging percentage (.272) and home runs (two), Herrera has been one of the few bright spots. In seven games, he is 7-for-21 with a walk, four stolen bases, and one strikeout.
"He shows his athletic ability just about every day he plays at some point or another," Sandberg said.
Herrera has shown he can hit at every level he has played, having won batting titles in the Texas League and the Venezuelan Winter League in the last year. The reason Texas left him unprotected in the Rule 5 draft is that he was a hitter without a position, not defensively adept enough at second base, not powerful enough for designated hitter. But the Phillies are convinced that he can grow into an outfield role.
Although he misjudged a catchable fly on the warning track in his first chance of the spring in leftfield, he later displayed good instincts and decisive routes in tracking down a couple of tricky line drives that sliced away from him.
Sandberg said he wouldn't need much more of a look to feel comfortable playing him in left in the regular season.
"I don't think it would take much at all," the manager said.
The Phillies' current outfield situation is Ben Revere in centerfield and an overabundance of odd-fitting parts around him: reclamation project Grady Sizemore and converted first baseman Darin Ruf are competing for time in left. In rightfield, Dominic Brown was one of the least productive players in the majors last season. The Phillies planned their offseason to get long looks at all three players, and that still seems to be their most logical plan. But Sandberg clearly likes Herrera, who has bonded with Revere in the outfield and at the top of the lineup. "Definitely with me and him on base, we can cause some havoc," Revere said.
Herrera is much younger than either Ruf (28) or Brown (27), both of whom are entering make-or-break seasons. Sizemore's role remains unclear (he is 1-for-14). Sandberg views Herrera as having enough versatility to play a meaningful role off the bench. He is a natural enough hitter that a year of reduced at-bats probably should not affect his development, but that doesn't mean Sandberg will hesitate to give him a bigger role. If Herrera keeps playing like he has been this spring, he could see plenty more opportunities to play in front of his heroes.