Johan Rojas Should Start 2024 Season in the MLB

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Johan Rojas Phillies
Clearwater, FL – JUN 26: Johan Rojas (33) of the Phillies West dives safely into third base during the Gulf Coast League (GCL) game between the GCL Phillies West and the GCL Phillies East on June 26, 2018, at the Carpenter Complex in Clearwater, FL. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)

Johan Rojas’ emergence in center field for the Philadelphia Phillies was a huge catalyst in their second run to the NLCS. But his flat-out brutal performance at the plate during that run has led to doubt that he will start the 2024 season with the big-league club.

The Phillies called Rojas up from Double-A in July amid a flurry of injuries. The 23-year-old native of the Dominican Republic performed much better than expected, instantly establishing himself as a top-notch fielder.

He soared up the leaderboards in stats like defensive runs saved despite playing a fraction of the innings that other star defenders did. His walk-off single that clinched a playoff berth and epic catch on a Ronald Acuña Jr. flyball in Game 4 of the NLDS made his first cup of coffee in the big leagues a memorable one.

Although he became the Phillies’ primary center fielder in the second half of the season, Johan Rojas’ inconsistency as a hitter has left the team with a choice to make. Either they can plan for him to start the 2024 season in the big leagues or have him continue to develop in the minor leagues.

Will Johan Rojas Start 2024 in the Minor Leagues?

Responding to a question about improving the team’s offense during his exit interview, Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski went through each key position player to evaluate how the team performed in that area. He spoke highly of Johan Rojas but didn’t commit to him starting the season as the team’s center fielder.

“Rojas’ defense far exceeded his offense during the regular season,” Dombrowski said. “My question when we made the move with him to put him at the big league level — and we do have [Christian] Pache, who we also like [but] unfortunately got hurt — my question is, ‘Can he keep his head above water to keep him in the lineup with his defense because of the other offense we have?’ And the answer was, ‘I think we can do that.’ And we really did that until we got to the postseason, and they really went after him, and he scuffled at that point.”

“So, I’m not going to anoint him a position with our big league club next year,” the Phillies’ lead executive continued. “He has to be able to contribute some offensively or else then he has to go down and continue to develop. [It] doesn’t mean we don’t love him; we think he’s a really good player. But we do need more offense than that out of a position.”

Dombrowski said that the Phillies must get better at controlling the strike zone, adding that they swung at “way too many” outside-the-zone pitches. This isn’t great news for Rojas, whose swings looked helpless by the end of the season against top-tier pitching. Hitting .300 to start his MLB career doesn’t hide the fact that he has plenty of work to do on offense.

Johan Rojas Phillies
Philadelphia Phillies’ Bryson Stott, left, Johan Rojas and Nick Castellanos celebrate after the Phillies won Game 1 in an NL wild-card baseball playoff series against the Miami Marlins, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Reflecting on Johan Rojas’ 2023 Season

In the 164 plate appearances he saw over 59 regular-season games in 2023, Johan Rojas posted a slash line of .302/.342/.430, 45 hits (including nine doubles, two triples, and two home runs, though just one came against a real pitcher), 23 RBI and 14 stolen bases. He struck out 42 times, drew five walks, was hit by a pitch four times, and got caught stealing just once. His wRC+ was 109.

Although Johan lacks high-end power, he did a decent job at delivering line drives. They accounted for 23.0 percent of the balls he put into play, which is just 0.9 percent below the MLB average. Aside from the one-of-a-kind statistical profile of Kyle Schwarber, everyone in Philly’s everyday lineup has a line-drive percentage higher than that of Rojas, so that particular skill is nice but not super valuable.

The main fuel source of Johan Rojas’ solid output was because his batting average on balls in play was an incredible .410. Aside from Jared Triolo of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Rojas’ 2023 BABIP was the highest among players with at least 150 plate appearances. That simply is not sustainable, especially for someone who is not a serious threat to hit for extra bases.

In the big leagues, Rojas’ quality of contact was more often weak than strong, his walk rates plummeted, and he became more prone to strikeouts. Luck was on his side but the growing pains suggest that he won’t be an above-average hitter by the numbers with the same recipe.

Johan Rojas’ numbers from the minor leagues paint the picture of a contact hitter, devoid of high rates in any of the three true outcomes. His BABIPs in the minors have been quite high, including a .349 in Double-A last season before his call-up.

He also had a decent walk-per-strikeout rate of .44 over his time in Double-A. The MLB average in 2023 was 0.38. That’s the level of discipline he’ll have to work his way back up to in the big leagues to become a truly productive hitter.

The Phillies definitely need some time to develop Rojas’ hitting. But they can afford to give him that time as their nine-hole hitter because of the MLB-ready skills he already has.

Why Johan Rojas Deserves Playing Time Now

Let’s start with the obvious point that Johan Rojas’ defense is absolutely good enough for him to see playing time in MLB to start the 2024 campaign. His ability to track and run down fly balls is great. His throwing arm is one of the strongest among outfielders.

The Phillies may be “ball go boom” personified but having a defender who is that good at playing the hardest spot in the outfield is extremely valuable. When the margins for victory narrow, it’s incredibly helpful to have a defender who can make a catch like this.

Rojas brings speed on the base paths and has been very good at stealing bases throughout his baseball career. With Trea Turner and Bryson Stott serving as the only two real threats to swipe bags, Rojas would be a highly useful change of pace in the Phils’ power-hitting lineup. What remains to be seen, though, is how well Rojas can reliably get on base to put that speed to use.

Having Johan Rojas develop against minor-league pitching would give the Phillies the chance to find a boost for their offense while the youngster gets his hitting abilities up to speed. But it would cost them a monster presence on defense. Plus, it would mean Rojas gets to see less of MLB-caliber arms, which he’s going to have to be ready for once the playoffs roll around.

If the Phillies envision Rojas being their center fielder by the end of the 2024 season and only plan to get him some playing time in the minors for a little while, they would be better off just letting him get more experience in MLB. It’s not like the team needs him to occupy a top lineup spot, either.

The Phillies Don’t Need Rojas to Carry the Offense

Spending resources and time to make sure a team’s ninth-hole hitter is unassailable is like going all out to get the best punter in the world for a football team — it’s nice to have, of course, but far down on the list of needs for a truly elite. The Phillies have exhausted resources to become a great offense. Anything Johan Rojas does is extra icing on the cake.

Plus, there was plenty of icing to be observed from last season. Rojas was much better than the average nine-hole hitter in 2023, which averaged a measly wRC+ of 81. Even if Rojas slips all the way down to that level, the Phillies have the firepower to be a well-oiled run-scoring machine.

The Phillies can still be one of the best offenses in baseball even as Johan Rojas was learning the big-league ropes. From his debut on July 15 to the end of the season, they had the seventh-highest team wRC+ and fourth-highest slugging percentage. With Bryce Harper in the lineup and Turner not being nightmarishly awful, Philly will be able to handle Rojas’ struggles.

Regardless of what they decide to do with Rojas, the Phillies should still add a right-handed hitter this offseason. Having no true threats as pinch hitters left the team flailing in the NLCS. Whether it’s a free-agency signee like Adam Duvall or a farm-system product like Weston Wilson to provide pop off the pine, Philly needs to make some kind of move.

For what it’s worth, Johan Rojas hit better than the average center fielder in 2023, too. All players of that position combined to produce a 99 wRC+. Will he do that again in 2024? All the indicators say otherwise. But if the plan is for him to start come postseason time, the Phillies should let him round out the lineup at the start of the season.

Unless some unforeseen trade for a star is on the horizon, the best version of this Phillies team features Rojas patrolling center field. There’s no doubt that he has to improve as a hitter. If he’s truly awful and overmatched, then he can be sent down to marinate in the minor leagues.

However, because of what Rojas has already shown in other areas and with a juggernaut lineup ahead of him, the Phillies can afford to develop him in the big leagues.

Photo Credit: (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)