In just three days, the Phillies will welcome the Atlanta Braves for the start of the 2024 MLB regular season, and with that, the Phillies’ Opening Day roster appears to be set.

Let’s do a quick check-in on a few of the most important storylines in the last days of Spring Training.


The Outfield

On Sunday, the Phillies traded left-handed outfielder Jake Cave to the Colorado Rockies for cash, giving way for what many saw coming from the past five weeks of action: the team will enter the season with Johan Rojas as the starting center fielder. Brandon Marsh will start in left; Whit Merrifield will assume his predestined utility role and Cristian Pache will make the team as the fifth outfielder. While offensively, Pache been the more impressive of the two (.278 batting average with 10 hits and two home runs in 26 at-bats compared to Rojas’ .170 with nine hits in 53 at-bats), the Phillies have maintained that they are less concerned with Rojas’ Spring Training stats than they are with the quality of his at-bats and the progression of his swing. Regardless, both have struggled with making consistent contact–Pache’s strikeouts have jumped in the past couple of weeks, while Rojas has been able to temper his swing and misses more recently. Rojas’ speed and otherworldly defense are only reasons why he’s starting the year with the big league club instead of in Lehigh Valley; however, expect a short leash for the 22-year-old if he struggles out of the gate. 

 

Pitching Depth

The Phillies will be slightly hamstrung regarding pitching depth in both their starting rotation and bullpen when they open the 2024 season on Thursday. Starter Taijuan Walker and reliever Orion Kerkering will both start the year on the injured list. Both are not insignificant subtractions, but Walker, diagnosed with a shoulder issue, poses a larger concern. The team’s number-four starter was flat-out awful this spring, allowing 8 earned runs on seven hits in just 4.2 innings. On Saturday, he reported that “something didn’t feel right” in his right shoulder after already having a late start to camp due to a knee issue.

Additionally, his fastball velocity was down significantly, sitting in the high eighties range after averaging 92.9 mph last season. A presumed innings eater with upside, Walker’s long-term health is imperative to the rotation’s success this season. Spencer Turnbull will fill in in Walker’s absence, and the rumor mills surrounding the team’s potential interest in free-agent starter Jordan Montgomery are already starting to churn.

In the bullpen, late-inning reliever Orion Kerkering will start the season on the injured list after an extended about with the flu early on in camp. Kerkering remains an intriguing question mark in what looks to be a loaded bullpen–with a sinker that sits in the high nineties and a sweeper that’s among the best in the sport; stuff is not a question with the young right-hander. Experience and effectiveness are. Kerkering shot through four levels of the Minor Leagues last year and initially baffled big league hitters with his unique arsenal, relying predominantly on the sweeper, before struggling in the NLCS. This year, the Phillies are hoping that Kerkering will be less gadget and more go-to: improving his command so that his pitch mix will be more traditional, leading with his sinker and striking out hitters with his sweeper. 

 

Bryce Harper’s Back

There is much to be excited about regarding Harper’s first full season at first base. First, the defense has seemed legit. With extended work this spring (and presumably the off-season as well), Harper looks far more comfortable at his new position than he did in 2023. While there will undoubtedly be growing pains as he navigates the infield’s trickiest position, Harper’s soft touch, smooth feet, and athleticism have all given reason to believe that he could develop into an above-average defender at the position.

However, that extended work in the field, coupled with vigorous batting practice sessions, have taken a toll on the superstar’s back. Last week, he was shut down for a few days with lower back pain, reportedly due to his extra work in the field. Harper’s lingering back issues are nothing new — last August, a back issue forced him to start 15 out of the next 21 games at DH, leaving Kyle Schwarber to start in left field. This is an outcome that the Phillies are hoping to avoid at all costs. Not only is Schwarber a complete liability defensively, starting Harper at DH creates a log jam at first base, forcing utility man Whit Merrifield to play out of position. Time will tell, but how much rest will Harper need to remain healthy while playing first base? Will one day a week at DH suffice? Maybe two?

Regardless, Harper and the Phillies have a whole lot to be excited about heading into Thursday’s season opener against the Braves.

 


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