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As football season comes to a close, baseball season cracks open.
Pre-season for the Philadelphia Phillies is just a few weeks away. To get us pumped up for the 2024 season, WHYY “Morning Edition” host Jennifer Lynn spoke with John Stolnis, co-host of the podcast “Hittin’ Season” from WHYY’s Billy Penn.
Jennifer Lynn: Let’s get a scouting report. What are the known strengths and weaknesses of the Phillies going into this warm-up period?
John Stolnis: They come into the season a pretty strong team all around. They have a good lineup, it’s deep, it’s got lots of star players on it. They’ve got a really good starting pitching staff. It’s considered one of the better pitching staffs in the National League and the bullpen is returning most of the same guys who were very effective most of last season. So the strength lies in really the superstars this team has accumulated over the years.
I think if there are any areas where perhaps there is a little bit of weakness, it could be in one of the outfield spots. They’re going to be relying on a young player named Johan Rojas to elevate his game a little bit. Just the depth around the team. If there’s an injury or two here and there, how the Phillies will be able to adjust to that as the season goes along — but most teams have that weakness as well.
JL: Yeah. Well, let’s talk about who the Phillies have kept and who the Phillies have lost. First, who’s on first?
JS: Bryce Harper is now the starting first baseman for this baseball team. Rhys Hoskins is no longer with the team, he signed with the Milwaukee Brewers as a free agent. So we all wish Rhys the best obviously, but Bryce Harper is gonna be the everyday first baseman for this team. It’s really amazing how he just learned the position on-the-fly last year, as he was recovering from major elbow surgery, and then managed to play it at a high level during the course of the season when he was out there.
They also brought back Aaron Nola, who could have left as a free agent, but that was one of the first things the Phillies did this off season was make sure that they signed their ace right hander to a seven-year contract and he will be with the team for the rest of his career. So they’re getting the band back together for another run here in 2024.
JL: I love it. Back to the outfield. You mentioned Johan Rojas. He’s a really great, young, speedy, rising star in some ways. I mean he can really catch the ball in the outfield but he is horrible when he’s at bat. Why are the Phillies holding on to Rojas?
JS: Well, you mentioned it. He is a defensive superstar. He is already one of the very best defensive center-fielders in baseball, and when we see a player add runs to the scoreboard, it’s very easy to see what those contributions are. A two-run home run is pretty obvious. You see what happens, a guy hits one out of the ballpark, two-run score, that’s easy to see. It’s harder to quantify how many runs a player saves by playing really good defense.
There are different statistics out there that will show you some of those numbers, and Johan Rojas in just the short time that he was with the Phillies last year was among the very best in baseball at preventing runs with his outstanding play in center field. So they hope that the bat comes around and they’re hoping that an offseason of working on that part of his game will allow him to be a more well-rounded player. If that happens, he is a potential star in the making.
JL: Also in the outfield, Kyle Schwarber, known for the Schwarbombs, the home runs that he smacks out of the park. Is he going to keep his spot in left field?
JS: No, he is actually moving to the designated hitter spot. So when we talk about Johan Rojas being an amazing defensive center fielder, Kyle Schwarber was exactly the opposite in left field. He was the worst defensive player in Major League Baseball when he was out there last year. So getting him off the field and making him a designated hitter only is something the Phillies prioritized this offseason. That does leave a hole in left field where, again, it looks as though Brandon Marsh, who had been their starting center fielder, will probably shift over and play left field so that Johan Rojas can play center field.
There are still plenty of players out there who the Phillies could bring in to add to the outfield mix, but right now Kyle Schwarber is completely out of the picture as far as an outfielder is concerned. He will only swing the bat this season.
JL: Well, the Phillies were full throttle in the last two seasons, of course once making it to the World Series, once stepping into the playoffs, but then petering out. We all kind of watch them ascend late in the season. Is this a strategy that works, given that teams that do well late in the season have a shot of the recently added extra wild card playoff berth?
JS: I will tell you that I don’t think the Phillies over the last couple of years have instituted that as a strategy. I think they were just kind of lousy in the first couple months of the season. Last year Bryce Harper missed the first month and was still finding his sea legs under him in the second month. Kyle Schwarber got off to a slow start. Trea Turner didn’t hit for the first four months of the season. Aaron Nola had an up and down season. Manager Rob Thompson has gone out of his way to say this spring they’re going to do some things a little bit differently because they do want to hit the ground running. They don’t want to have to make a late season charge, but I think what you’re saying is also true. Teams that are playing their best at the end of the season — by the time the playoffs roll around — are generally speaking the ones that have the most success. So you’d like to find that balance somewhere along the line here in 2024.
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