Jake Cave starting the spring strong in bid for spot on Phillies' bench

Jake Cave starting the spring strong in bid for spot on Phillies' bench originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The Phillies will open the season with 13 position players on their active roster and two of those spots are still up for grabs.

Eight starters are set in J.T. Realmuto, Rhys Hoskins, Bryson Stott, Trea Turner, Alec Bohm, Kyle Schwarber, Brandon Marsh and Nick Castellanos.

Garrett Stubbs, Josh Harrison and Edmundo Sosa are three more locks.

The primary candidates for the final two spots are Darick Hall, Dalton Guthrie, Kody Clemens and Jake Cave.

Cave is a 30-year-old outfielder the Phillies claimed off waivers on December 2. He's on the 40-man roster, a five-year vet who had 1,015 plate appearances with the Twins. He experienced major-league success right away, hitting .262 with 21 homers, 70 RBI and a .795 OPS over his first 163 games in 2018 and 2019.

He struggled in 2020, broke his back in 2021 and feels like he's in a good place physically again.

Cave has started the spring hot, going 5 for 9 with a double, triple and homer in three games. He cracked a two-run bomb to right-center in the second inning Wednesday in Fort Myers at his old spring training home of the Twins. It was the hardest-hit ball of the day for either team at 109.4 mph. It went 427 feet, eight shorter than Hall's two-run shot three innings later.

"I know when I'm healthy, I can bring some things to the table," Cave said earlier this week. "I'm just trying to show that. I'm 30 but I feel just as strong, just as fast as I've ever felt in my life. I'm in a pretty good spot.

"It was an injury thing. I broke my back in 2021, I think that was a big deal because I'd been feeling that for a while. I don't know how it happened but it happened. In 2021, I was hurting to start the year but played through it. Then I eventually got an MRI and broke an L5. So 2020, the COVID year, I wasn't happy with my production and 2021, I was hurt a lot. But I was happy with last year. The Twins took me off the roster and I started the year at Triple A really well, got called back up and did pretty well in the big leagues too."

Cave will get a start Thursday in center field, his first of the spring.

“He’s really experienced, a real pro,” manager Rob Thomson said Wednesday. “Goes about his business the right way. Plays good defense, he’s just a solid player, really good depth.”

Cave has extensive experience in center, having played 47 percent of his major-league innings there. He'd play center in place of oft-injured Byron Buxton but also played a lot of corner outfield as Max Kepler dealt with injuries the last two years.

The ability to play center field is an important factor in the battle for the final bench spots. The Phillies need a backup behind Brandon Marsh, who is a left-handed hitter like Cave. Marsh is the everyday center fielder. Sosa has worked out in center field but the Phillies will carry a backup in center whether or not Sosa adapts quickly to the position. He's needed too many other places anyway.

"Honestly, now, all three outfield spots feel the same to me," Cave said. "I feel just as confident in the corners as center. I grew up playing center field, came up through the minor leagues playing center field and obviously first couple years with the Twins. But the last couple years with the Twins, there were a lot of times where those guys were healthy and I was coming in as a defensive replacement in the seventh or eighth innings in left or right. Kepler had a couple problems, things like that, so I played some right field, played a good amount of left the last few years too. I'm at the point now where I think I've had enough innings at all three positions that I feel comfortable at all three."

There aren't many roster battles taking place in Phillies camp. It's fifth starter, eighth reliever, 12th and 13th position players. Andrew Painter's bid for the final rotation spot has garnered a ton of attention, rightfully so. How the rotation battle plays out will affect the final bullpen spot. As for the bench, it's a competition but Cave isn't viewing it that way.

"That's not how I look at it at all ever, to be honest with you," he said. "I don't like when people get too worried about what's going on with the roster. I understand the situation and I know that there's some guys fighting for some spots, but I feel like I'm in a good position, I've got a spot on the (40-man) roster and I know what I can do and I know I can bring some different things in the field.

"But all these guys are studs, I just want to go out there and produce. I think if you go out and you play the game the right way, good things will happen."