Who Is The Phillies Center Fielder?

For four seasons after Jayson Werth departed Philadelphia via free agency, the Phillies had a depth crisis at the center field position. Their top four backups by playing time were John Mayberry Jr, Michael Martinez, Tony Gwynn Jr, and Cesar Hernandez. Of those four, Gwynn was a true center fielder, but the others represented varying degrees of defensive disasters at the position. This frustrating trend mercifully came to an end in 2015 when through either astonishing luck or masterful scouting (or, more likely, a beautiful marriage of both) the Phillies transformed a second baseman from Double-A named Odubel Herrera into a legitimate major league center fielder while the team’s former primary center fielder, Ben Revere, moved to left field as insurance. In 2016, the defensive situation has only improved with the addition of elite defensive center fielder Peter Bourjos to the roster. The Phillies are now in the enviable position of deciding which of two qualified candidates will be their primary center fielder: Odubel Herrera or Peter Bourjos?

With Aaron Altherr now sidelined for at least the majority of the season, there is little question that both Herrera and Bourjos will start the season as everyday outfielders for the Phillies. Bourjos is entering his seventh major league season and has made every single one of his 386 career starts in center field. Herrera is coming off a phenomenal rookie breakout season in which all of his 121 starts were in center. One of them is going to have to learn a new position and, with Opening Day less than three weeks away, there’s no time to waste. During Grapefruit League action so far, five of Bourjos’ eight appearances have been in center and the other three were in left field whereas all seven of Herrera’s have been in center. This would appear to hint at Herrera as the early favorite for the position, but is that the right call?

Considerations

Before we break down the reasons each player should be the center fielder, let’s lay out a few key considerations to keep in mind.

  1. Peter Bourjos is only under contract for the 2016 season while Odubel Herrera is currently under team control for five more seasons.
  2. Although putting together a winning season isn’t necessarily the top priority for the 2016 Phillies season, the strength of the defensive alignment is relevant if for no reason other than the impact it will have on the team’s young pitchers.
  3. Bourjos could potentially be a trade chip this summer.
  4. Both Bourjos and Herrera are strong defenders in center with extraordinarily limited experience in a corner.

The Case for Odubel Herrera

Odubel Herrera was nothing short of a revelation last summer. One of the few joys of watching the 2015 Phillies was seeing Herrera develop in real-time from a Double-A prospect into one of the better center fielders in the league. [The only center fielders in the National League with a higher rWAR than Herrera (3.8) were Arizona’s A.J. Pollock (7.4) and Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen (4.9).] As the season wore on, he made noticeable improvements to his plate discipline, quality of contact and, most relevantly, his defense. He was known for taking bizarre routes last summer, with perhaps the most famous coming in the best game of the Phillies’ season. But despite the extra mileage on his legs from winding routes, he grew to be a well above average center fielder.

The growth and development he exhibited in the outfield was the result of just one year at the position. Keeping Odubel Herrera in center for 2016 will give him the opportunity to continue improving. If he can iron out his routes, his defensive potential is extraordinary thanks to his speed, instincts and decent arm. Then, add elite defense to his propensity for doubles pop (and beyond), hard contact, and an increasingly discerning eye at the plate and Herrera could conceivably be a 3-5 win player at the position for years to come. Moving down the defensive spectrum to a corner outfield spot at this key point in his development would be a costly mistake that could ultimately diminish his overall value.

The Case for Peter Bourjos

The biggest contribution Bourjos is likely to make to the Phillies is his elite outfield defense and there is no reason to believe he won’t be able to put that on display no matter which outfield position he mans, regardless of prior experience. If he were likely to remain with the Phillies organization for an extended period of time, deciding between Bourjos and Herrera could be as simple as answering the question “Who is the better defensive center fielder?,” and it’s certainly possible that the answer to that question is Bourjos. Of course, that’s not the situation in which the Phillies find themselves. It’s worth noting that stellar play in center field could help boost Bourjos’ trade value, but because Bourjos’ stint in Philadelphia will be brief and his trade value relatively minimal, the significantly more pressing consideration is Herrera’s development. Therefore, the case for playing Bourjos in center is better presented as the case for moving Herrera to a corner.

The roster turnover phase of the Phillies current rebuild began in a real way last summer with the emergence of Odubel Herrera, Maikel Franco, Aaron Nola, and others at the major league level. Over the next couple summers, more young talent will join them including players like J.P. Crawford, Nick Williams, Roman Quinn, Andrew Knapp, Jake Thompson, Zach Eflin, and Mark Appel. At just 24 years old and already having major league success to his name, Herrera is in a position to be an important part of this emerging core. When the Phillies attempt to assemble a winning team with their next generation, roster flexibility will be a valuable commodity and it’s something the Phillies would be giving up by allowing Herrera to focus solely on the center field position this early in his career.

Perhaps Herrera is the center fielder of the future but, then again, perhaps that role will belong to Roman Quinn. Some of the team’s current prospects will be regulars for the team, others may be bench players and others still may flame out entirely. At this point in the rebuild there’s no way to know which prospects will be which. The Phillies ought to use this season and Bourjos’ presence as an opportunity to have Herrera work in a corner and expand his versatility in order to best prepare him for the unknown of the Phillies future roster needs.

Prediction

Absent any revelations from the coaching staff, the only real way to predict who will begin the season in center is by tracking their playing time this spring. Given that Herrera has been kept in center more consistently than Bourjos the safest bet would appear to be Herrera getting the center field nod. Although I think the case for expanding Herrera’s versatility with work in a corner outfield position is compelling, it’s difficult to find fault with keeping him at center for the time being. If he continues improving from where he left off last season, he could be an above average regular at one of the more challenging defensive positions on the field and that’s a scenario which is hard (and perhaps even irresponsible?) for the Phillies not to give Herrera the opportunity to pursue. No matter how the Opening Day alignment ends up, though, Bourjos and Herrera will give the Phillies at least two plus defenders roaming the outfield in what will be a clear upgrade on Phillies outfields of recent past and, hopefully, a valuable boon to their young and developing pitching staff.

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