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Pache an early camp standout — ‘He's right there with (Rojas)'

Pache an early camp standout — ‘He's right there with (Rojas)' originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

CLEARWATER, Fla. — For all the talk the last six months about Johan Rojas' defensive impact with the Phillies, the offensive question marks in his game and his projected role when the 2024 season begins … don't forget about Cristian Pache.

Few outfielders have the first step, range and instincts Rojas possesses, but Pache isn't far off as a defender. His ability to play center field was a primary reason why he was regarded by MLB.com and Baseball America as one of the 15 best prospects in the sport heading into the 2020 and 2021 seasons.

"He's right there with (Rojas)," manager Rob Thomson said after Thursday's game. "He can defend at any position in the outfield."

Pache didn't hit with the Braves and didn't hit with the A's. The Phillies acquired him from Oakland the day before Opening Day 2023, and in a small sample size of 95 plate appearances, he held his own offensively. He arrived in Philadelphia a career .156/.205/.234 hitter in 115 games. With the Phils, he hit .238/.319/.417 with 10 extra-base hits and a league-average OPS.

Fast forward to this spring training and he's been one of the Phillies' early offensive standouts, going 3-for-7 with two home runs, including one Thursday in Dunedin against the Blue Jays. Early Friday afternoon, he made a sensational snag of a deep line drive to left field by Miami's Bryan De La Cruz.

"I'm feeling great," Pache said through team interpreter Diego D'Aniello. "I'm doing my routine with Kevin Long and the rest of the coaching staff and that has given me a lot of results. I worked through the offseason into spring training.

"I feel great, I feel familiar. I can say that I feel more comfortable now. I think I found something in my swing and that's been the key. I'm with my family and friends here (in Florida) and I'm trying to work hard to get a job. I feel comfortable in Philly. Just trying to do the best work I can to help the organization."

Pache was on a nice run at the plate last summer when right elbow pain surfaced from a screw that had been inserted there in 2016. He had hit .372 with seven doubles and two home runs in the 47 plate appearances leading up to that injury, including a game-winning pinch-hit homer in Miami just before he was placed on the IL. He came back in September and struggled at the plate, but overall, the season was a step in the right direction.

"The bat just seems to keep on getting better," Thomson said. "As soon as we got him last year, K-Long went to work on him and he started hitting left-handers. Now, it looks like he has a chance to maybe hang with right-handers.

"It's been great. He's been letting the ball travel and using the entire field. He's strong, he's got power. If he gets the ball up in the air and swings at strikes, he'll have some success."

Comfort, as always, plays a role. Pache didn't have much time a year ago to get to know his new teammates and it took a few months until his personality began to show.

Pache is trying to solidify a roster spot and potentially start more than expected in center field if Rojas doesn't hit, but this isn't the same sort of pressure that he felt in Atlanta, where he was trying to prove he was as good as advertised, or in Oakland, where he was the centerpiece of the Athletics' return for star first baseman Matt Olson.

"I can say that I was a little bit overexcited during those moments," he said. "I tried to prove myself too much doing more than I could at the moment. But right now, I have a different mentality and that's helped.

"I'm going to work hard. I have to work hard. That's the only thing that I can do and that I can control."