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CLEARWATER, Fla. – The personnel decision spoke volumes, which Dave Dombrowski spelled out to underline the fact.
When the Phillies president of baseball operations traded Matt Vierling to Detroit as part of a package to land All-Star reliever Gregory Soto in January, Dombrowski was indicating that Brandon Marsh was the team’s long-term plan in center field.
And if you couldn’t read that between the lines, Dombrowski affirmed that Marsh was the sole plan in center – not in a left-right platoon, as had been the case with Vierling late last year, but as the guy every day.
“Hearing those words come out of his mouth, it means a lot,” Marsh said from the clubhouse at BayCare Ballpark. “That just shows there’s a lot of work that needs to be done, and I’ve got to do my best to fill that center field role as best I can. Last year, Vierling and I platooned it toward the end, and he’s in Detroit now and I’m wishing him the best, but I’m looking forward to accepting the challenge and having a lot of fun with it.”
Along with his bundles of charisma, Marsh brings an evergreen hope that the Phillies might, for the first time in the better part of a decade, be able to field a lineup with a real, live major league centerfielder.
Center at Citizens Bank Park has been a black hole the last few years. Phillies centerfielders have accumulated 6.6 wins above replacement total in the last five seasons. That includes an even 0.0 in 2020 and the 29th-highest tally in 2022 at 1.6. (For comparison, in his four seasons as a Phillie, Bryce Harper alone has accounted for 14.7 WAR.)
The rolodex of misfits at that position comes with a trigger warning. Aaron Altherr, Scott Kingery, Roman Quinn, Odubel Herrera, Adam Haseley, Andrew McCutchen, Mickey Moniak, Bradley Zimmer – most got chances to make the position their own. None did for more than a few weeks at a time.
So now it’s Marsh’s turn. A second-round draft pick out of high school, he fits the bill in terms of talent. He cost the Phillies one of their top prospects in catcher Logan O’Hoppe. At 6-4, 215 pounds, with a fluid gait chasing down fly balls and a sweet left-handed swing, he looks the part.
He made an instant impression in Philadelphia last year, as much for his .288 average in 41 games down the stretch as for his infectious joy (and his hirsute, preternaturally moistened looks). His three-run home run in Game 4 of the NLDS against Atlanta gives him an iconic postseason moment in Philadelphia before his first opening day. So his starting point to settle in this spring has been higher than most.
“With a run like the Phillies had last year, it’s hard not to feel like one big family even after that,” Marsh said. “Now with another offseason, a spring with these guys, it’s been nothing short of fun. I’m settling in well, the guys here are incredible, staff here is incredible. I couldn’t be any happier.”
Marsh has plus defensive capability at a high-leverage position in the field. He’s batted .248 in his two big league seasons, with 13 homers and 71 RBIs over 721 plate appearances.
The question is if he can hit lefties in the big leagues, and he’s batted only .220 against them (38-for-173) since debuting in 2021. But he was a much better hitter against southpaws in the minor leagues at .318 (49-for-154).
“It’s the same, dude,” Marsh said. “Left or a righty, they’ve got to throw it over the white thing.”
For all the joviality on the field, Marsh isn’t naïve about how fleeting being christened a starter is. On paper, it may be his position. But guys inside the clubhouse are pushing for at-bats. And Marsh knows he needs to perform. His anointing as a starter only sets the target that others are working for, and he continues to work to keep the guys behind him at bay. It’s a friendly competition, one that Marsh enjoys, but competition nonetheless.
“Nothing is promised,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of good outfielders in camp and that’s awesome for the organization, to have a lot of options. It’s fun competing with the guys, like (Jake) Cave, (Edmundo) Sosa, Kingery. It’s fun and we’re going to have a lot of options to compete with. I’m looking forward to it. We’re all going to push ourselves in a friendly, competitive way.”
Part of Marsh’s joy is a detachment from the outcomes. If he performs well and gets the job, he’ll be thrilled. If he performs poorly and someone else gets the job, then that’s better for the team.
That’s his north star, and how he’s going to have the most fun this season anyway.
“I don’t get paid to make (up) the lineup,” he said. “I’m going to bust my tail and give it all I’ve got for the guys on the field, and if it’s enough, it’s enough. If it’s not, it’s not, and I’m going to be the best damn cheerleader there is.”
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