Phillies trying different combinations to inform decisions on postseason lineup, roster

PHILADELPHIA — It had been nine days since Johan Rojas took an at-bat in a game, let alone started one. The rookie outfielder is here for his defense. The Phillies know Rojas is an unfinished product at the plate. But, in the final four weeks of this season, they have to answer whether he should be in the lineup for a postseason game.

It’s possible the Phillies fielded their optimal lineup Friday, then went 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position in a 3-2 loss to the Marlins. They had defense with Rojas in center and Brandon Marsh in left. They had Kyle Schwarber as the designated hitter because Bryce Harper played first base for the third straight game. It was only the second time Phillies manager Rob Thomson deployed this lineup; he used it more than a month ago, July 25, in a win.

One game won’t sway things in favor or against it.

“The San Diego series, we left a lot of guys on base too,” Thomson said. “I think we’re just going through a period. I’ve always said you come out of that.”

Thomson can do some tinkering to change it. He’ll probably drop Nick Castellanos down in the lineup. “I won’t comment on that,” Thomson said. Castellanos, who was 0-for-4 in Friday’s loss, now has a .758 OPS. That is the lowest it’s been since the first week of the season. It’s possible Alec Bohm, who has delivered with runners in scoring position all season, could move into the cleanup spot.

Castellanos swung at the first pitch after Bryce Harper drew a four-pitch walk to load the bases in the seventh inning. He grounded into a rally-killing fielder’s choice.

“He’s just jumping,” Thomson said. “He’s super aggressive. He just needs to stay back, see some pitches, use the field.”

Regardless of where he hits, Castellanos will be in the lineup. But there is a decision to make this month about who should be the ninth player in a postseason lineup. That player is less consequential than everyone else in the batting order just being themselves, but it’s a decision nonetheless.

Brandon Marsh congratulates Bryson Stott after he made a diving stop. The Phillies have three weeks to decide how to best use Marsh and their other pieces in the postseason. (Bill Streicher / USA Today)

Jake Cave started 14 games in August and he hit .275/.321/.549. But a lot of that production came earlier in the month; he hasn’t had an extra-base hit since Aug. 20 and is batting .154/.214/.154 in 28 plate appearances since then. Edmundo Sosa has hit .289/.385/.511 in 53 plate appearances since the start of August, but he doesn’t fit into the postseason plans if Harper is at first base and Bohm is at third.

That leaves Thomson with some sort of outfield combination that includes two of Marsh, Rojas, Cave or Cristian Pache. Rojas, so far, has been an elite defender in center. He went 0-for-3 and was hit by a pitch in his rare start Friday night.

Is the Rojas-Marsh tandem a realistic one to ride in important games?

“Yeah, possibly,” Thomson said. “You know? Just trying to get a hot hand and go with it.”

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Brandon Marsh singles to drive in a run against the Brewers on Sept. 1. He has often sat when the Phillies faced lefty starters. (Benny Sieu / USA Today)

Marsh’s place in all of this is intriguing. He’s hitting .288/.380/.462 this season. He’s made huge gains in his power production and on-base skills. The Phillies have resisted moving him higher in the batting order. On Friday night, Thomson pinch hit for Marsh to begin the ninth inning against Miami’s lefty closer Tanner Scott. Pache batted and skied the first pitch he saw to left field for a routine out.

Marsh’s OPS against lefties is 208 points lower than against righties. He’s made improvements versus lefties from a season ago. The Phillies viewed him as a future everyday player when they acquired him last summer in a trade with the Angels but acknowledged that Marsh was best used in the short term as a platoon player.

Last postseason, the Phillies ran platoons at two spots: shortstop and center field. Matt Vierling started five of the team’s 17 postseason games. Sosa started four of them. This time, Bryson Stott is entrenched in his new spot (second base) and won’t need a platoon partner.

But it’s possible the Phillies still attempt to hide Marsh against a lefty starter — depending on the matchup.

The Phillies have faced seven left-handed starters since Marsh was activated from the injured list Aug. 20. Marsh has started only one of those games. Do the Phillies still see him as someone who must be platooned?

“Not necessarily,” Thomson said this week. “It depends on who the lefty is. We faced (Angels lefty Reid) Detmers and Marsh was in the outfield. So, I think it just depends on how tough the lefty is on lefties. I think Marsh is capable of hitting lefties. And, in the future, he’s really going to be able to handle that.”

Detmers was the rare lefty with reverse splits. (Lefties have a .921 OPS against him in 2023.) This is notable only because the Phillies’ likeliest first-round opponent is the Cubs and they’d probably start a left-hander, Justin Steele, in the first game. He’s been worse against lefties (.748 OPS) than righties (.620 OPS) this season.

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Cristian Pache has hit .375/.405/.675 against lefties in 40 at-bats. (Aaron Gash / MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Even if Marsh is in the postseason lineup for every game, there is a debate about the other outfield spot. Pache, in a small sample, has crushed lefties. Thomson gave him two starts during the last road trip and Pache went 1-for-6 with a triple and two walks.

Rojas was the choice on Friday. “Just his ability to hit right-handed velocity,” Thomson said. “And you know you’re getting the defense.” Rojas, entering the weekend, was 2-for-11 with two singles when he put pitches that were 95 mph or harder in play. It’s possible the Phillies had minor-league data to support Thomson’s claim.

Whatever the reason is, the Phillies are trying different combinations so they have a better picture when October comes. The bench won’t be a major factor in any postseason series, but it’s still curious the team is burning a roster spot on infielder Rodolfo Castro, who has batted five times in the last 26 days. Weston Wilson slugged his 30th and 31st homers for Triple-A Lehigh Valley on Friday. The Phillies have kept Castro over Wilson, according to team sources, because Castro would be out of minor-league options for 2024 if he’s demoted to the minors before this season ends.

That wouldn’t preclude Wilson from a potential postseason roster spot, but it’s hard to imagine him having any meaningful role without a September tryout. Maybe the Phillies change course and prioritize the current roster.

Whatever happens to these Phillies won’t come down to the last bench spot or the ninth man in the lineup. But it wouldn’t hurt if someone separated from the pack in September.

(Top photo of Johan Rojas on Aug. 22: Rich Schultz / Getty Images)

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