Johan Rojas went 0 for 3 Saturday in the Phillies’ 13-5 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays, but there was progress.

Rojas leads the Phillies in plate appearances this spring, as the team wants him to get in as many chances as possible to improve his approach.

He doesn’t need to hit .300. He doesn’t need to be an on-base darling. He just has to be passable at the major league level. Combine that with his otherworldly defense in center and he’s the perfect complement to the rest of the Phillies lineup.

But what he can’t be is an automatic out. He can’t go up to the plate and perform like a pitcher, back in the old days when pitchers used to bat.

That’s what it looked like in the 2023 postseason, and if we’re being honest, it hasn’t been much better this Spring.

Rojas has had 27 plate appearances. He’s 5 for 27 (.185) with seven strikeouts and he hasn’t walked. In those 27 plate appearances he’s only seen 76 pitches and he’s swung at the first pitch 16 times.

He’s averaging just 2.82 pitches per plate appearance, which is uber-aggressive. He’s swung and missed at 14 of those 76 pitches. And when he makes contact, it tends to be of the soft variety. Not every minor league park is equipped with Stat Cast technology, so some information is missing, but of the 12 balls that he’s put in play in games in which Stat Cast is available, his average exit velocity is 75.6MPH.

Needless to say, that’s not good.

In his last game before Saturday, he only faced six pitches in four at bats. The Phillies need him to be much more selective.

He was Saturday.

He faced 14 pitches in three plate appearances, and although he popped out twice and grounded into a fielder’s choice, he was definitely more patient. His second plate appearance was a seven-pitch at bat – tied for his longest of the spring.

It definitely caught manager Rob Thomson’s eye.

“For me, if you are hitting in the nine spot that’s got to be a grind position,” Thomson said. “I’d like to see 18 to 20 pitches out of the spot. There needs to be some production, obviously. But if he can learn how to grind out some at bats he’s going to be really effective.”

He’s not there yet though. He still has a couple weeks, and will get plenty of opportunities, but the Phillies need to see an improvement in that “grinding” part of his game.

“He was O.K.,” Thomson said. “He’s still working on his lower half and he has to sync it up, but I think it’s getting a little better.”

For his part, Rojas is compartmentalizing his at bats. He is making his focus all about swinging at strikes and not chasing pitches out of the zone, which was something else he needed to work on in the offseason. He’s done that for the most part, although pitchers are challenging him more, so he’s seeing more strikes.

“I’m just trying to swing at strikes, that’s my mindset right now,” Rojas said through a team interpreter. “I’m not a player of habit. It’s just that sometimes I want to take a pitch to see the ball better. That’s where I was at today.”

It’s definitely a work in progress. And one that doesn’t have to come to fruition by March 28th. The Phillies have a series of outfielders who can play at the major league level, most of whom are battling for the last spot on the roster.

Whit Merrifield is a lock to make the roster, but beyond him, Cristian Pache, Jake Cave, and non-roster invite David Dahl are all getting regular reps in the lineup. Pache and Cave are out of options, so they either make the team, or are put on waivers. Dahl has an opt out of his minor-league deal if he doesn’t get added to the 40-man roster before the season begins. Pache, Cave and Dahl all could make many other rosters in the MLB.

The Phillies could choose to keep two of them, and send Rojas down to start the season, and let him continue to develop his approach. There’s no doubt he’s going to be a big part of the franchise, but it doesn’t mean he needs to be there on Opening Day.

There’s still plenty of time, but it’s worth keeping an eye on as each Grapefruit League game passes.

Walker Debuts

Taijuan Walker pitched for the first time this Spring. He threw two innings, allowed one run on three hits, a walk and had three strikeouts. He threw 38 pitches, 20 for strikes.

To be fair to Walker, one of the hits was a pop fly that Kyle Schwarber lost in the sun. Another was on a ball that maybe another left fielder would have been able to get to but Schwarber couldn’t.

On the other end though, Walker was saved by an excellent running grab by Rojas off the bat of Vladimir Guerrero Jr, so it cuts both ways.

For his part, Walker said he felt good, and that other than his splitter, he was happy with his outing. Thomson echoed Walker.

He topped out at 91 MPH on his fastball, but he said that he expected to be in the 89-90MPH range for his first start.

“Honestly, yeah,” he said. “Only because of my buildup. I really only got one live BP in, a couple of bullpens. But yeah, I mean it’s expected. I’m a little behind. I’m playing catch-up a little bit.”

He feels like he can ramp it up to 94-95 by the regular season.

We’ll see.

Odds and ends

  • Whit Merrifield left the team for a couple days for personal reasons. He is expected back Sunday.
  • Pache is among the latest Phillies to be sick. He’s not been with the team for a few days.
  • Edmundo Sosa hit a grand slam in the Phillies loss. It was his first homer of the Spring.
  • Orion Kerkering, who missed time with an illness, will need to throw a bullpen before he can get back into game action.
  • Brandon Marsh is nearing his return and is expected to DH in an inter-squad game Sunday. He remains on pace to get into game action by the middle of next week.
  • Max Castillo will start Sunday for the Phillies in Bradenton against the Pirates. Most of the Phillies positional regulars are unlikely to play after playing both Friday and Saturday. Alec Bohm is the only one who could go on the trip. Zack Wheeler will start Monday against the New York Yankees.