“We think he has a chance to be a star,” said Philadelphia Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski after the Aug. 1 trade deadline in regards to center fielder Johan Rojas, “… [He] was asked about a great deal [in trade conversations], and [wasn’t] somebody we ever even contemplated or came closer to trading.”
Those words were great praise for a player who made his surprising big-league debut just two weeks prior. Rojas, having never played a game above Double-A, was promoted to the majors after a need surfaced for a capable fourth outfielder with Cristian Pache being placed on the injured list.
Now, a little more than four months removed from those remarks, Rojas isn’t a lock to be Philadelphia’s center fielder come Opening Day 2024.
So, what changed? Not much, really. Rojas was called up out of necessity, not because he was a finished product. He did, however, hold his head above water.
Rojas started 40 games over the last two-and-a-half months of the 2023 regular season for the Phillies, appearing in 59 games overall. The 23-year-old was solid, putting together an above-average mark at the plate along with great defense.
But, Rojas’ offensive abilities are still a question mark. And with that, the Phillies aren’t going to just hand him a big-league job in 2024. “I’m not going to anoint him a position with our big league club next year,” Dombrowski stated at Philadelphia’s year-end press conference back in November, “He has to be able to contribute some offensively or else then he has to go down [to the minor leagues] and continue to develop.”
Most recently, at the Winter Meetings, Philadelphia’s president of baseball operations stated that outfield is an area of the Phillies’ roster they could add to, as long as they find the right fit. Those words make it seem like the club isn’t itching to sign a full-time, major-league outfielder this winter. It’s possible, at the very least, they’re looking to sign someone who can compete with Rojas come spring training. And, if needed, be part of some type of outfield platoon if Rojas doesn’t start 2024 in the majors.
That being the case, Rojas can still make a good impression this winter and in the spring. If he does, he’ll be on the Phillies Opening Day roster in March.
With that, let’s review his 2023 and take a look at where he needs to improve to become an everyday big-league player.
2023 was supposed to be another year of development for Rojas. He split time between High-A and Double-A in 2022, slashing .244/.309/.354 in 556 plate appearances. Those numbers were not a surprise, given the scouting report on the outfielder. His glove and speed have always been his best tools, while his offense has been his worst.
So, 2023 was going to have to be a year of growth. And it was. In 354 plate appearances for the Reading Fightin’ Phils, Philadelphia’s Double-A affiliate, Rojas hit .306/.361/.484. At first glance, those numbers showed major improvement. But, playing games at FirstEnergy Stadium, Reading’s home ballpark, comes with a catch — that ballpark always seems to boost the offensive abilities of a lot of different players.
Therefore, looking deeper into Rojas’ home and road splits is important. He hit .265/.323/.376 in his minor-league road games in 2023, while batting .353/.404/.607 at home. He only took 20 more plate appearances away from FirstEnergy Stadium, so the sample sizes are nearly identical. It’s clear his numbers were boosted by the great hitter’s environment in Reading.
Even with the offensive question marks, the Phillies took a shot on Rojas in mid-July because they needed him. With Pache going in the IL, they needed someone who could roam the outfield grass with ease and take at-bats from the right-handed side of the batter’s box. Their Triple-A roster didn’t offer a player with that profile. So Rojas got the call.
He made his debut on July 15, playing both games of a doubleheader against the San Diego Padres at Citizens Bank Park. Rojas wasted no time showing off how he could help the Phillies. On the first play of his major-league career, he tracked a fly ball off the bat of Fernando Tatis Jr. down, made a leaping grab, and made an impressive throw to first base to double-up the baserunner, Ha-Seong Kim.
Rojas notched his first big-league hit in the second game of the doubleheader, finishing 3-for-4 with a pair of RBIs.
All in all, Rojas showed off his strong glove work throughout the remainder of the year. He was named Sports Info Solutions’ Co-Defensive Player of the Month for August, sharing the award with third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Rojas finished 2023 with 15 defensive runs saved and nine outs above average in 392 defensive innings. Despite that low innings total, he finished with the fourth- and sixth-most defensive runs saved and outs above average of any center fielder.
The Dominican-born outfielder showed off his glove in the postseason, too.
As for his bat in the majors, Rojas put together a .302/.342/.430 slash line with a 111 OPS+. His splits against right- and left-handed pitching were nearly identical. The young outfielder had a .760 OPS versus righties and a .788 OPS versus southpaws. The final month of the season was his best, as he batted .327/.364/.481 in 57 trips to the dish.
His biggest offensive moment came on Sept. 26 against the Pirates as his first walk-off hit in the majors secured a second consecutive playoff berth for the Phillies.
In total, what the Phillies got from Rojas exceeded expectations. He flashed his leather at an elite level, while being 11% better than league-average at the plate. His defense doesn’t need work. His offense, on the other hand, does.
Areas of Improvement
Despite being an above-average hitter in 2023, Rojas’ offensive output wasn’t one the Phillies can roll with in 2024. While peaking at his slash line and OPS+, that’s not a conclusion one would come away with. However, looking a little deeper will tell a very different story.
First off, Rojas’ sample size was small. He only made 164 regular-season plate appearances for Philadelphia, while making 45 more during the postseason. His postseason numbers — Rojas went 4-for-43 with 15 strikeouts and one walk — were the result of being massively overmatched.
Getting back to the regular season, Rojas outperformed pretty much all of his expected numbers. His .302 batting average far exceeded his .247 expected average. Rojas’ actual slugging percentage (.430) was 126 points higher than his expected slugging percentage (.304). His weighted on-base average was .335, while the expected number for that statistic was .267. Outperformance such as that is not going to result in above-average production throughout a full season. A big reason for Rojas’ 2023 success was his .410 batting average on balls in play — another unsustainable number.
Beyond that, Rojas didn’t qualify for placement in the 2023 Major League percentile rankings found on Baseball Savant. If he did, the results wouldn’t have been pretty.
The most obvious areas of improvement for Rojas are lowering his swing-and-miss rate and being more patient at the plate. Over the last few seasons in the minors, his strikeout rates ranged from 10 to 18%. Meanwhile, his walk rates fell anywhere from about 7 to 10%. At the very least, those would be respectable rates in the majors. Especially when he struck out as much as he did, and walked as little as he did, in 2023.
On top of that, Rojas finding a way to make more impactful contact would go a long way. He doesn’t have to crush the ball with insane exit velocities or pepper the gaps with line drives, but figuring out a way to make good enough contact so the ball can find the outfield grass more often would be beneficial. But, before he can do that, he’ll have to make more contact.
Going from Double-A to the majors is a huge leap. Major-league pitching is the nastiest it’s ever been. So for a player like Rojas — a glove-first speedster whose offensive profile has never been a plus — being overmatched at the highest level of baseball the world has to offer is no surprise.
There’s no need to worry if you’re a Phillies fan, though. Rojas is far from a finished product and the Phillies have had some recent success with helping young hitters find their stride at the big-league level.
Brandon Marsh, acquired at the 2022 trade deadline, posted a 127 OPS+ this year after finishing the previous season with a 91 OPS+. He saw an increase in his hard-hit and walk percentages this past season, which helped him become a better, more productive hitter.
Bryson Stott, who struggled to find consistency in his first season in the majors, was a better hitter in 2023. He found a way to be more consistent at the plate and performed better against high velocity. Trying to mimic Stott’s profile and approach would be beneficial for Rojas. That won’t be easy, though. Rojas doesn’t seem to have the same bat-to-ball skills as Stott.
Where To Go From Here
At the end of the day, Rojas and the Phillies need to find a more sustainable way for the young center fielder to produce at the plate. The production doesn’t need to be otherworldly, either. Getting Rojas to produce at a league-average clip in the batter’s box without the help of luck is enough to make him playable because of his elite defense — think Kevin Kiermaier.
There’s no need to rush him. Patience with Rojas will benefit both player and team long-term.
There are other paths for the Phillies to have a productive outfield alignment — both at the plate and in the field — in 2024 without Rojas. But their strongest collection of outfielders would certainly consist of a better-hitting version of the 23-year-old defensive whiz.
Featured Photo: X / @Phillies