During a 3-2 victory over the division-rival New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park on April 17, Phillies center fielder Odubel Herrera came away limping after tracking down a 5th inning fly ball in left-center field.
As it turns out, Herrera had strained his right hamstring. He would leave the contest, be placed on the Injured List, and miss the next 14 games. The man who would replace him, Roman Quinn, was activated from the IL the very next day following a minor league rehab stint for his own oblique injury.
The Phillies would drop six of their next eight games. Quinn would start in center field for the first seven of those, slashing an anemic .120/.185/.120 with no extra-base hits and just one run scored. The normally electric speedster would swipe no bases before going down with his own groin strain.
From April 25, the first game that Quinn missed, through Herrera’s return to the starting lineup for Sunday’s victory over the Washington Nationals, manager Gabe Kapler started Aaron Altherr in center field once and then Andrew McCutchen for seven straight games.
When he signed with the Phillies as a free agent back in December, it was to become the starting left fielder. But McCutchen made it clear that he would play wherever the team needed him. Scott Lauber of Philly.com quoted McCutchen, who won a 2012 NL Gold Glove while playing center for the Pittsburgh Pirates, earlier this week:
“I’m always going to view myself as a center fielder even when I’m not playing there. When I retire, I’m going to retire as a center fielder. I may not be playing there. I may be in right, or left, or whatever. But I’m always going to say, ‘I’m a center fielder.'”
The Phillies would win five of the first six games they played with McCutchen in center field, a streak broken only by Saturday’s night’s 8th inning bullpen implosion. That night, Herrera pinch-hit and stayed in the game to play center, with McCutchen moving back to left field.
In Sunday’s 7-1 victory over the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park, Herrera returned to the starting lineup as the center fielder with McCutchen in left. Batting in the 5th spot of Kapler’s order, Herrera went 0-4 with three strikeouts, making him 0-6 overall since being activated.
While you may write-off Herrera’s struggles in the first two games back to his need to regain timing, the fact is that he wasn’t producing prior to the injury.
Herrera is now slashing just .246/.293/.348 over 75 plate appearances across 19 games this season. He has just one homer and five extra-base hits while scoring seven times and driving in seven runs.
This comes on the heels of a mixed 2018 campaign in which he produced a career-high 22 homers and 71 RBIs, but also hit just .255 with a .310 on-base percentage. Despite the home runs, Herrera’s 44 total extra-base hits were down from the 59 he produced in the 2017 season over fewer plate appearances.
Herrera was a stolen base threat when he first came up, swiping 16 bags as a rookie in 2015 and then another 25 the following year. But then Herrera simply stopped running, stealing just 13 total bases over the last two seasons combined. He has none so far this year.
Defensively he has played well, handling 43 chances without being charged with an error to this point. With Quinn hurt and Aaron Altherr having been designated for assignment, Herrera is clearly the best current option to play the center field position on the Phillies roster.
It remains an open question as to the ceiling for the 27-year-old from Venezuela. But there is little to show him as much more than a low-average, modest power, little speed offensive performer. That is not the kind of profile to whom a championship contender wants to give 600 plate appearances as an everyday starter.
Herrera has a chance to be a difference maker for this Phillies team as they fight to remain on top of the National League East Division standings. But if he cannot step up his production it could prove deadly to a team trying to reach the postseason for the first time in eight years.
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