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Phillies 2024 spring training storylines: Johan Rojas, replacing Craig Kimbrel and 1B Bryce Harper

Rob Thomson provides update on Philadelphia Phillies ahead of 2024 spring training
Rob Thomson provides update on Philadelphia Phillies ahead of 2024 spring training 15:18

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) - The Philadelphia Phillies didn't sign Shohei Ohtani or Yoshinobu Yamamoto. They didn't trade for Juan Soto. It was a boring offseason for fans, who have become accustomed to headline-making signings in the Bryce Harper Era.

And yet, the Phillies head to Clearwater, Florida this week having spent the second most on free agency in baseball.

The Phillies brought Aaron Nola back on a seven-year, $172 million contract after he tested free agency. Only the Los Angeles Dodgers - who signed both Ohtani and Yamamoto - spent more money in the offseason.

It might have been Dave Dombrowski's quietest offseason as a baseball executive, but the Phils remain well-positioned to challenge for a World Series.

Here are three storylines to watch as spring training gets underway this week.

1. Will Johan Rojas crack the Phillies' opening day roster?

The Phillies moved on from Rhys Hoskins, committing to Bryce Harper as their first baseman and moving Kyle Schwarber to be their full-time designated hitter. While moving Harper to the infield opens up an outfield spot, the Phillies were headstrong this winter in suggesting that doesn't mean Johan Rojas will be handed a job.

Their actions signal otherwise. The Phils enter spring training without acquiring an outfielder in free agency or via trade. The outfield depth chart looks like this: Nick Castellanos in right field, Brandon Marsh in left or center field, Cristian Pache, Jake Cave and Rojas. Philadelphia could still add an outfielder before the season begins on March 28.

Rojas was called up in June when Pache was placed on the injured list. The 23-year-old was regarded as a premium defender and elite baserunner with a light bat. The defense was evident from the start, but he kept his head above water at the plate during the regular season and stuck.

Philadelphia Phillies v Toronto Blue Jays
Johan Rojas of the Philadelphia Phillies hits an RBI double against the Toronto Blue Jays during the sixth inning in their MLB game at the Rogers Centre on August 15, 2023 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Mark Blinch/Getty Images

Rojas hit .302 with a .771 OPS in 59 regular-season games, but he was exposed at the plate in the playoffs when he was confronted with better pitching consistently. He had a slash line of .093/.114/.163 with 15 strikeouts in 43 postseason at-bats.

On Jan. 17, Phillies manager Rob Thomson left the door open for Rojas to begin the season at Triple A but said he has a "pretty good chance" at making the team if he's performing in spring training. Thomson said the Phils would do what's best for Rojas.

Thomson did make one thing clear. If Rojas breaks spring with the Phils, they'll give him some rope.

"I don't know what the week number or the month number is, but if you're going to make a commitment to him, I think it's going to be for a while," Thomson said. "I think you just have to shut your eyes and let him play."

If Rojas makes the Phillies' opening-day roster, it would mean Marsh would be their left fielder and Castellanos in right.

"I think it can work from our perspective because it worked last year at the end of the year," Thomson said.

Marsh had arthroscopic debridement surgery on his left knee last week but is expected to be ready for Opening Day.

2. Replacing Craig Kimbrel and the Phillies' pitching depth

Craig Kimbrel's time as a Phillie won't be remembered in Philadelphia for his All-Star season or even recording his 400th career save in the red pinstripes. Instead, Phillies fans will likely remember him for losing Game 3 of the National League Championship Series and then blowing a save in Game 4. Kimbrel signed with the Baltimore Orioles in the offseason.

Still, the Phillies will have to replace Kimbrel's 69 innings, mostly high leverage. The veteran righty and likely future Hall of Famer did have a 3.26 ERA and saved 23 of his 28 opportunities last season. It ended poorly, but Kimbrel was solid for the Phils.

To date, the Phillies haven't added a reliever to replace Kimbrel. They were reportedly interested in a few relievers, but it appears they're comfortable with their current bullpen and uncomfortable with the market. Thomson said in January that he would be "pretty happy" with the Phillies' bullpen if they didn't any anyone before spring.

The Phillies appear to be banking on Orion Kerkering to serve an elevated role in 2024.

Kerkering was drafted in the fifth round of the 2022 MLB draft. In his first professional season, the 22-year-old climbed from Class A to a prominent role with the Phillies in the playoffs.

The Phils called Kerkering up with 10 days left in the regular season. He threw a scoreless inning in his debut and struck out two New York Mets, which led to a heartfelt, viral moment involving his dad.

Kerkering made seven appearances in the playoffs, throwing four scoreless innings in his first four outings and then hit a wall. He failed to record an out in a blown save in Game 3 of the NLCS and then walked two and recorded just one out in Game 4. He allowed a run on two hits an inning in the Phils' Game 6 loss.

"There were a couple of bumps there in the Arizona series, but other than that when he did fail, he bounced right back," Thomson said. "It didn't seem to mentally or emotionally affect him. That's a good sign because his stuff is there. The swing-and-miss is there. If he can handle this atmosphere, which I think he can - I think he's proven that - we've got somebody who could be special."

Thomson said he would like to see Kerkering - and his slider - win a job in the spring.

"He's way up on my list as far as his talent and where he stands in that bullpen," Thomson said. "I like the stuff. I like the makeup. I think he's going to be a big part of this thing moving forward and this year."

Thomson pointed to Connor Brogdon, Yunior Marte and Luis Ortiz as depth arms who have contributed in the past. Michael Rucker and Max Castillo will also be in the mix.

As for the rotation, the Phillies reportedly offered more than $300 million to Yamamoto before the prized Japanese free agent signed with the Dodgers. But other than that, the Phils were silent.

Philadelphia signed former Texas Rangers first-round pick Kolby Allard and former Detroit Tigers veteran Spencer Turnbull as rotation depth. Allard and Turnbull figure to slot in as the Phillies' sixth and seventh starters in some order.

The Phils' rotation is set with Zack Wheeler, Nola, Ranger Suarez, Taijuan Walker and Cristopher Sanchez. Behind those five, there's Turnbull, Allard, Dylan Covey and Nick Nelson.

"Typically, knock on wood, you're going to need eight or nine starters over the course of the year," Thomson said in January. "Most teams do, anyway. So that rotation depth is really important."

Prospects Mick Abel and Griff McGarry could be options later in the summer.

In two of the past three seasons, Dombrowski has added starting pitchers in midseason trades - Kyle Gibson and Michael Lorenzen. It could be another summer where the Phils look to add rotation depth.

3. How does Bryce Harper respond to a full spring at first base?

Bryce Harper went to the Phillies last April with the proposal to learn first base in the wake of Hoskins' torn ACL. Three months later, he made his major league debut at the position - and he did so with a web gem.

Harper now enters spring training as the Phillies' everyday first baseman. Dombrowski told reporters during the GM meetings the organization believes Harper at first base makes the Phillies better both now and in the future.

"It gives us a really good, athletic infield that can be together for years," Dombrowski said.

Last season was on-the-job training for Harper. He returned returned from Tommy John surgery in May first as strictly a DH and then at first base. Now, the 31-year-old will have a full offseason and spring to learn the fundamentals of the position.

Phillies Braves Baseball
Bryce Harper will enter the 2024 as the Philadelphia Phillies' full-time first baseman. John Bazemore/AP

"It's huge for him, no doubt," Thomson said. "He was kind of learning on the run last year and that was difficult. To see what he did and how good he was just having to go through that was amazing."

Harper looked natural at first base last season. He finished with three Outs Above Average - tied with Gold Glove first basemen Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt.

Not only does Harper moving to first base help improve the Phillies' infield defense, but it also allows the team to shift Schwarber to full-time DH. Schwarber was rated as one of the worst defenders in baseball last season.

How does Harper look after an offseason to prepare and as spring training goes on is something to watch this March.

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