Rojas, Bohm and Phillies take a look at the Braves’ potential X-factor for 2024

By | March 4, 2024

Rojas, Bohm and Phillies take a look at the Braves’ potential 2024 X-factor originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

NORTH PORT, Fla. – Even fewer Phillies regulars than expected took the 1-hour, 40-minute drive from Clearwater to the Braves’ spring training complex in North Port for Sunday’s game.

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

The Braves started Chris Sale, their biggest pitching addition of the offseason. Sale’s fastball was solid and he struck out five Phillies in 2⅔ scoreless innings. Most of his heaters ranged from 90 to 90 mph, compared to his average of 93.9 last year.

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

“Good job (today), he’s Chris Sale,” said manager Rob Thomson. “The speed is back there, the slider was good, it 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 Dec. 30. Aside from Nick Castellanos and Whit Merrifield, the rest of the roster only has 18 players. bats against the 34-year-old southpaw.

The best at-bats against Sale Sunday came from Alec Bohm, who scorched two line-drive singles. Jake Cave also had two productive ABs, hitting center Sale and doubling specialist Aaron Bummer, two of the more difficult left-on-left assignments a hitter faces.

“He’s had some great at-bats, he really has,” Thomson said of Bohm. “He doesn’t chase at all, he uses the whole field and recently hit a long home run. He just had a really, really good camp. I want to keep him there.’

Johan Rojas opened. He struck out on a full count against Sale, grounded out to third base twice and bunted a ball back to the mound in his four at-bats. Bunting is a focal point for Rojas this spring. It’s a skill he needs to make himself more useful on the board. He had six sacrifice bunts last season, but most of them were back to the pitcher, the kind of placement that doesn’t always lead to success.

“It just goes to show it wasn’t a very good bunt and it almost beat him,” Thomson said. “So we’ll keep working on it and keep lowering his accuracy and he’ll get there.

“Juan Pierre throws about a thousand times a 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 big key for Rojas is reducing his pursuit speed. He swung at too many pitches outside the strike zone as his rookie year progressed, especially in the playoffs. The pitch low just below the knees was difficult for him to dismiss. Last season he made 62 and 34 were pinches. The contact he made was rarely quality contact.

“What I’m looking for is, ‘Is he under control?’” Thomson said. “Use his speed. The power comes 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 midfield is not guaranteed. If he doesn’t hit, the Phillies have other options. Brandon Marsh is on his way back from a knee injury. The addition of Merrifield would allow Marsh to play center, as Merrifield can play left field. There’s also Cristian Pache, who isn’t quite the defender Rojas is in the middle, but has shown more power and a bat that is at least slightly better.

Sunday’s pitchers

There are only three real battles taking place during Phillies spring training.

One is for the midfield job, which affects the composition of the bench.

One is for a spot like the tall guy in the bullpen who can pitch multiple innings.

The other is the last traditional auxiliary role.

The tall man competition is between Spencer Turnbull, Kolby Allard, Max Castillo, Dylan Covey, Nick Nelson and David Buchanan. Turnbull has a one-year contract worth $2 million and appears to have the slimmest chances of that group to make the Opening Day roster. He was sharp in his Grapefruit League debut Friday, shutting out four Marlins in 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 place of Sanchez on Sunday and pitched a scoreless inning against the top of the Braves lineup. He threw 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 run into them a lot of times, all those guys. Some familiarity there, but other than the four-pitch walk, I thought I executed pretty well and I was able to work around that.”

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

Of the group of Brogdon, Marte, Bellatti, Mercado, Ortiz and Ruiz, only Brogdon and Bellatti have been left out of the minor league options. That’s important because the Phillies (and most teams) prefer roster flexibility with their final bullpen spot. They want to be able to freely send a reliever to the minors when the bullpen is stressed and needs a new arm.

“I know it’s probably going to be a tight race here and I’m out of options, I’m aware of that,” Brogdon said. “I’m just going to pitch how I pitch.”

Something that could play in Brogdon’s favor is the ability to rack up more than three outs. He pitched 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 threw more than an inning 10 times last season, but the Phils ideally want to use him less as a multi-inning player as he has turned into one of their key high-leverage right-handers.

“I don’t necessarily know what a separator is, I would just say I think it provides some versatility,” Brogdon said. “I’ve done multiple innings in the past and I’ve even opened like I did today even though it wasn’t planned in the past. It doesn’t hurt to be able to play more than one and it’s something I’m comfortable with .”

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