CLEARWATER, Fla. — Tommy Joseph and Collin Cowgill slapped hands in center field Tuesday afternoon as they returned to their positions, jogging by each other like ships passing in the night.
Joseph, a catcher-turned-first baseman playing the outfield for the first time in his life, started the game in left field, with Cowgill in right. They swapped their corner-outfielder positions in the second inning when the Phillies opted to play the percentages against Detroit switch-hitter Victor Reyes.
Manager Gabe Kapler has put an emphasis this spring on defensive shifts using the data of every opposing batter. But an in-inning defensive swap was something new.
“That was pretty neat,” Joseph said. “Part of the ‘Be Bold’ stature that we’re working with here trying to be trailblazers when it comes to the shifting.”
The Phillies will try similar tactics during the regular season. The shift happened once Reyes stepped in to bat from the right side against right-hander Ricardo Pinto. The scouting report said Reyes would likely hit a ball to left field. So there went Cowgill, the better defender, from right field to left. Reyes struck out and the outfielders switched back to their positions.
“It’s actually not a brand-new concept. It’s just more straightforward,” Kapler said. “It’s putting a guy who has a really good defensive capability in the spot where you think the ball is going to go. Is it a little unorthodox relative to what is done every day? Sure. But, at the same time, we want to be prepared for it during the season. Yes, you rep it, you rep it, you rep it. And then when it comes up, it doesn’t feel foreign at all. It’s like, ‘Duh, we did this many times over. And we’re good at it now.’ Guys aren’t winded because they’re running back and forth. It’s not new. It’s something practiced.”
The Phillies tried Joseph in left field as they continue to stress versatility. Rhys Hoskins and Carlos Santana have a hold on first base. Joseph will have to learn a different position if he is to make the opening-day roster. He has even taken ground balls at third during workouts.
Joseph learned Sunday that he would be playing in the outfield sometime this week. He stayed behind on Monday as the team traveled to Tampa and worked with outfield coordinator Andy Abad. That was all the experience he had before Tuesday. Luckily, he already had an outfield glove he used to shag fly balls in batting practice. Joseph held his own. The Phillies played Joseph pretty deep to protect him. The first two balls were hit his way and Joseph caught both for outs. He made a sliding catch in the fourth. He survived.
“I think that’s one thing that’s transpiring in baseball,” Joseph said. “The more positions you can play, the better off you’ll be in getting an opportunity to play, so it wasn’t surprising at all.”
Joseph’s future with the Phillies remains uncertain. The Phillies plan to enter the season with a shortened four-player bench as they add a reliever to the bullpen. It might be hard to find room for him, but playing left field could help his chances. And Joseph showed Tuesday that he can also handle right field. For one batter, anyway.
“When it comes down to it, you’re going to do everything you can to help your team win, knowing that ultimately it’s a tryout for all the other teams as well,” Joseph said. “Every team is watching every other game, whether they’re scouting you because they’re going to play you or they’re looking at you because you might be valuable to their team.”