Phillies Spring Training 2024

Rojas, Bohm and Phillies get a look at Braves' potential 2024 X-factor

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NORTH PORT, Fla. — Even fewer Phillies regulars than expected took the 1-hour, 40-minute ride from Clearwater to the Braves' spring training complex at North Port for Sunday's game.

Most veterans tend not to make the longer trips early in camp, plus there is a bug going around the Phillies' clubhouse that resulted in starting pitcher Cristopher Sanchez and infielder Scott Kingery being scratched Sunday with illnesses. Mick Abel was scratched from his start Saturday.

The Braves started Chris Sale, their biggest pitching addition of the offseason. Sale's fastball was firm and he struck out five Phillies over 2⅔ scoreless innings. Most of his heaters ranged from 95-97 mph compared to his average last year of 93.9.

Sale is a big X-factor in the NL East and National League playoff race. A major reason why the Braves have fallen short two postseasons in a row is their rotation either suffering untimely injuries or running out of gas. If he can stay healthy, Sale should be a boost as a No. 3 option, particularly against the Phillies' left-handed bats like Bryce Harper and Kyle Schwarber.

"Good stuff (today), he's Chris Sale," manager Rob Thomson said. "The velocity's back up there, the slider was good, looks like he's working on his changeup. We'll have to deal with him."

The Phils have very little experience with Sale, who spent his entire career in the American League until the Braves traded Vaughn Grissom to Boston for him on December 30. Aside from Nick Castellanos and Whit Merrifield, the rest of the roster has just 18 at-bats against the 34-year-old lefty.

The best at-bats against Sale Sunday came from Alec Bohm, who scorched two line-drive singles. Jake Cave also had two productive ABs, singling up the middle off Sale and doubling off specialist Aaron Bummer, two of the more difficult lefty-on-lefty assignments a hitter will face.

"He's had great at-bats, he really has," Thomson said of Bohm. "He's not chasing at all, he's using the entire field, hit a long home run the other day. He's just had a really, really good camp. Want to keep him right there."

Johan Rojas led off. He struck out on a full count against Sale, grounded to third base twice and bunted a ball back to the mound in his four at-bats. Bunting is a point of emphasis for Rojas this spring. It's a skill he'll need to make himself more useful at the plate. He had six sacrifice bunts last season but the majority of them were back to the pitcher, the type of placement that doesn't consistently result in success.

"Just goes to show you, that wasn't a very good bunt and he almost beat it out," Thomson said. "So we'll continue to work on it and continue to get his accuracy down and he'll get there.

"Juan Pierre bunted about 1,000 times every day. That's the key, just getting repetition in practice. Not that Rojas is going to be that, but he's going to get better at it and he already has quite a bit."

Another major key for Rojas is cutting down his chase rate. He swung at too many pitches outside the strike zone as his rookie year progressed, particularly in the playoffs. The pitch low just below the knees has been difficult for him to lay off. Last season, he swung at 62 of them and 34 were whiffs. The contact he did make was rarely quality contact.

"What I'm looking for is, 'Is he under control?'" Thomson said. "Use his speed. The power will come with experience. He's a talented guy and he's strong enough to hit home runs, he just can't force it."

Rojas is 3-for-17 (.176) this spring with a triple, no walks and six strikeouts. The starting job in center field has not been guaranteed. If he doesn't hit, the Phillies have other options. Brandon Marsh is progressing toward a return from a knee injury. The Merrifield addition would allow Marsh to play center since Merrifield can play left field. There's also Cristian Pache, who isn't quite the defender Rojas is in center but who has shown more power and a bat that is at least slightly better.

Sunday's pitchers

Only three real battles are going on at Phillies spring training.

One is for the center field job, which impacts the composition of the bench.

One is for a spot as the bullpen's long man capable of pitching multiple innings.

The other is the final traditional relief role.

The long-man competition is between Spencer Turnbull, Kolby Allard, Max Castillo, Dylan Covey, Nick Nelson and David Buchanan. Turnbull is on a one-year, $2 million contract and appears to have the shortest odds from that group to make the Opening Day roster. He was sharp in his Grapefruit League debut Friday, striking out four Marlins over two perfect innings.

The other bullpen battle includes Connor Brogdon, Yunior Marte, Andrew Bellatti, Michael Mercado, Luis Ortiz and Jose Ruiz, and it's also possible the Phillies fill that spot with someone on another roster who gets cut later in camp.

Brogdon started in Sanchez' place Sunday and pitched a scoreless inning against the top of the Braves' lineup. He popped up Michael Harris II on the first pitch, walked Ozzie Albies on four pitches, allowed a soft bloop single to Austin Riley and retired Matt Olson and Marcell Ozuna on flyouts.

"Not bad," he said. "I've faced them a ton of times before, all those guys. Some familiarity there but other than the four-pitch walk, I thought I executed pretty well and was able to work around that."

Marte also appeared in Sunday's game, pitching a scoreless second inning. He's a hard thrower with the ability to miss bats, and there were points last season when Marte was effective out of the Phillies' bullpen. He made eight consecutive scoreless appearances from May 20 through June 10 and didn't allow a run in 10 of 12 from June 28 through July 29.

Among the group of Brogdon, Marte, Bellatti, Mercado, Ortiz and Ruiz, only Brogdon and Bellatti are out of minor-league options. That matters because the Phillies (and most teams) prefer roster flexibility with their final bullpen spot. They want to be able to send a reliever to the minors freely when the bullpen has been taxed and needs a fresh arm.

"I know it's probably going to be a tight roster race here and I'm out of options, I'm aware of that," Brogdon said. "I'm just gonna pitch how I pitch."

Something that could play in Brogdon's favor is the ability to pick up more than three outs. He went more than an inning 15 times in 2021, and at least four of the locks in the Phillies' bullpen are one-inning guys: Jose Alvarado, Gregory Soto, Seranthony Dominguez and Orion Kerkering. Jeff Hoffman pitched more than an inning 10 times last season but the Phils ideally want to use him less as a multi-inning guy because he's turned into one of their important high-leverage right-handers.

"I don't know about a separator, necessarily, I would just say that I think it does offer some versatility," Brogdon said. "I've done multiple innings in the past and I've even opened like I did today, even though it was unplanned in the past. It can't hurt to be able to go more than one and it's something that I'm comfortable with."

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