The Phillies have had a difficult last few years, quickly going from a perennial World Series contender to a bottom-dweller with a roster replete with aging veterans and unproven players attempting to prove their worth. One of those unproven players has quickly given Philadelphia fans something to look forward to as the organization begins its rebuilding process. That player, Odubel Herrera, is currently slated to be the team’s Opening Day center fielder.
Herrera was selected by Philadelphia from the Texas Rangers in the Rule 5 Draft with few expectations that he’d be capable of making an impact on the Major League roster. At just 23, Herrera hasn’t even reached Triple-A, spending last season between High-A and Double-A while batting .321 with a .373 on-base percentage.
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With little expected, the man fondly known as “El Torito” (the little bull) has taken the bull by the horns, hitting .321 with six steals in the Grapefruit League and vaulting himself from unknown to starting center fielder, forcing the Phillies to move former projected starter Ben Revere to left field.
With Domonic Brown’s recent Achilles injury, Herrera’s stock received an additional boost and likely an extended look even if he experiences some initial struggles. Even when Brown returns, potential right-field starters Grady Sizemore or Darin Ruf will be the likelier options to move to the bench.
Herrera led the Texas league in batting average last season with 21 stolen bases, while being named the Best Defensive Second Baseman in Baseball America’s Best Tools survey. The Phillies will have to hope the tools that earned him that accolade will translate into the majors as he converts to a new position.
This spring he’s shown he can handle centerfield while batting .355 with an impressive .847 OPS in 68 plate appearances. It was only two seasons ago that Herrera was seen as a below average defender who lacked discipline at the plate. 365 days later the improvement was significant as his errors dropped and his walks increased.
Phillies Manager Ryne Sandberg sees that same improvement saying, “I think it really gives us the chance to improve our defense in a lot of ways. Herrera seems the most comfortable right now as a young player in center field and I think Ben’s shown the capacity that he’s good in the corners”, according to the DelawareOnline New .
There is no question that Herrera has the tools that the Phillies need in their rebuilding process.
“He kind of fits the bill of what we were trying to do,” Phillies Manager Ruben Amaro said to MLBlogs Network. “We were trying to get younger, a little more athletic. He’s got good energy. He’s got a decent package.”
The Phillies selected a player with a similar description in Shane Victorino in the Rule 5 Draft in 2004 and not even two seasons later he was regular in the Phillies lineup. Whether Herrera’s career can head in the same trajectory remains to be seen, but it’s clear that he does have bat speed and level swing to generate line drives. That swing has allowed him to become a highly-advanced hitter to the opposite field, something that has led to a high career batting average on balls in play (BABIP), including a .389 average in Double-A last season.
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He’ll never hit 18 home runs as Victorino did in 2010, but he’s more than capable of swiping 30 steals on a perennial basis, a feat Victorino accomplished four times during his career. If the Phillies can utilize that speed correctly and teach him how to steal at a high percentage, he could form a dynamic 1, 2 punch with Revere atop the lineup.
The growth from Herrera will have to come on the defensive side and against left-handed pitchers. Against lefties, he batted .207, which is more indicative of a platoon player rather than every day starter. He’ll get the chance to prove he can make those adjustments this season, behind Revere.
If Herrera continues to rake at the plate while demonstrating adequate defensive skills, the Phillies may have found their successor to Chase Utley at second base. If not, they at the very least found a capable starter in the outfield for the foreseeable future.
With so few building blocks, Herrera could be one of the few bright spots on a team likely headed for a dismal season.