Cincinnati Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips might soon have the same title, but with a different employer. Trade rumors are encircling him as the MLB offseason approaches, and it looks like Phillips’s turbulent, disappointing 2013 might have been his last season with a team that still hold the rights to him (on a perhaps ill-advised contract extension) for four more seasons. Let’s try to evaluate his trade market.
What is Phillips, Really?
To establish what he might be worth, and therefore, who might have interest in him, we first need to figure out what Phillips does well, and what he does poorly, and how those things might change over the next few years. I don’t want to have narrative-driven conversations, about controversy over where he bats in the lineup or over his RBI totals or over his popularity with fans or his abrasiveness to writers. Let’s focus on a skill set here.
Phillips remains an excellent contact hitter. He struck out 98 times in 666 plate appearances in 2013, a very solid figure for anything but a slap hitter, in the current league environment. He’s never been terribly patient, but he’s good for about 50 walks (including times hit by pitch) per year.
His on-base skills, then, depend on his batting average when he puts the ball in play. His BABIP has fluctuated in a fairly narrow range since he joined the Reds in 2006, and his OBP has been similarly consistent, though not spectacular, riding the wave:
Brandon Phillips, BABIP and OBP, 2006-2013
2006 (Reds only)
It’s pretty safe to say that the 2011 numbers, which led directly to the Reds’ decision to sign him to a six-year, $72.5-million deal, were an aberration. Still, this is a solid and consistent player, and while he’s never helping you with his OBP, he’s never hurting you, either, especially given that he plays second base.
His power is a slightly different story. Rather than holding steady and forming no discernible pattern, the way his OBP skills have, his pop seems to have had a pretty standard rise and fall, an aging curve with its peak in his ages-26-through-28 seasons. His isolated power sagged to .135 in 2013, the lowest figure he’s posted since his miserable rookie season, in Cleveland in 2003. It’s a testament to his consistency, though, that whatever the rate stats might tell us, he has still managed precisely 18 home runs in each of the past four seasons.
The disappearance of that power matters, of course, since the OBP never set him apart. Unless Phillips rediscovers his thump, he’s no longer a star-level player. He’ll turn 33 next summer, so to expect that pop to materialize anew would be folly.
He can still be useful, though, because he’s still a strong defensive second baseman, and the positional and fielding value there is significant. He’ll make $50 million over the next four seasons. That’s not an albatross by any means, given the state of the MLB economy. It’s just not a bargain.
Who Should Want Him?
The surplus value on Phillips’s contract is fairly minimal, but the raw value of adding him to a lineup, near the bottom, is not inconsiderable, especially accounting for what’s out there in terms of free-agent middle-infield talent this winter. The asking price in trades like this one changes from one prospective buyer to the next, depending on the shape of the inquiring organization; their willingness and ability to take on Phillips’ salary obligations; and the Reds’ needs. Still, it should be possible to ponder Phillips’s profile and come up with a list of teams that might want him.
Oh, hey, here’s one:
In an unsubstantiated, vague way, the Braves’ interest has already been confirmed. That’s not surprising, either, because this is a team that just left its incumbent second baseman (Dan Uggla) off its playoff roster, despite Uggla’s own hefty multi-year contract commitment.
It could be a swap of bloated contracts for second baseman in decline, with something else accompanying Uggla to Cincinnati. It could also be a less direct swap of onerous contracts, with B.J. Upton going to the Reds to take the place of presumably departing free agent Shin-Soo Choo. A more traditional deal, though, Phillips for Young Player X, is harder to work out, though, so this would have to be a bit of a challenge trade.
Mercifully free of further obligations to Brian Roberts, the Orioles should be in the market for an upgrade at second base, and are situated well enough competitively to justify Phillips’s expense even despite their owner’s aversion to big contracts. They could be angling to replace Roberts from within, with solid prospect Jonathan Schoop, but Schoop had an injury-plagued and inconsistent 2013. If the Orioles are serious about remaining competitive with this core, they might need to splurge.
Schoop could be a headline piece in a trade. The Reds might also ask for one of a few solid mid-level pitching prospects, whom the Orioles have quietly accumulated. They certainly would, if Baltimore couldn’t take on the whole contract.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Second base is a certain vacancy, and the money is certainly not an obstacle. The Dodgers might well prefer to dream bigger, with Robinson Cano, but Phillips probably should be second on their list of options, even given his declining indices.
Another team will probably outbid the Dodgers in terms of prospects. They get interesting as a destination if Phillips’s market is surprisingly tepid, and the Reds need a way to get him off their books altogether.
I’m not sure I advocate this, but I think it deserves to be discussed. The Twins should be looking to spend some money this winter. They should be looking to move incumbent second baseman Brian Dozier while his value is highest. They should be starting to move forward, not just wait for their prospects to turn into something more. Being able to use Dozier as a key piece in the trade makes the argument more plausible. If the Reds believe they have Phillips’ replacement in-house, this notion falls apart.
Toronto Blue Jays
I don’t share the seemingly prevailing notion that the Jays have failed in their efforts to build a team that can win the AL East. I think 2013 was a violent and fairly tragic aberration, and I think they ought to at least try to reload. If the asking price on Phillips gets too high, Toronto would have to back out, but they should be looking for place to make upgrades and push right back to the front of the division, where they seemed to belong as recently as March.
It’s clear the Danny Espinosa era in Washington is over. He might benefit from a change of scenery. The Nationals would certainly try to build a deal around him. With Anthony Rendon at least tenable at second base in a short showing, though, one wonders whether there’s ultimately a fit. The Nationals are one team that need not worry about Phillips’s deal; they still have money to spend.
Who Fits Best?
As tricky as the details might be, the Braves scenario intrigues me most. The paradigm in Atlanta has been to build flat pitching staffs that rely on keeping the ball on the ground. That maximizes the value of Phillips’s glove. They also give the Reds a chance to get proven talent back. Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and that starting rotation make a rebuilding project impermissible. Uggla or Upton, while flawed, would help the Reds stay in contention in the NL Central.Next post: Jim Leyland Leaves Detroit Tigers, Exacerbates Chaos of Managerial Carousel
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