The Reds and their fans are likely understandably disappointed in their first-found playoff loss to the Pirates after a 90-win season. Still, the Reds gave themselves a shot by making the playoffs. It was their third playoff trip in four years, and though they did not make the Divisional Series as they did in their most recent two prior appearances, it was still the team’s third time in four years in the playoffs.
Nonetheless, this is the time of year for speculation on what a team should do to position itself for the future, especially in the suddenly very competitive National League Central. The Reds are likely facing at least one major departure as Shin-Soo Choo hits free agency after a monster season at the plate. They still have a good core of players who will be around, among them Joey Votto, Mat Latos, Jay Bruce, Aroldis Chapman, and Homer Bailey. Brandon Phillips also has been a big part of that core during the Reds’ recent run of success, and is under contract through 2017. However, earlier this week John Fay wrote that the Reds apparently had interest in Cuban infielder Alexander Guerrero, who is projected to play second base in the big leagues. With Phillips’ perceived down performance and the organization’s reported irritation with some of his comments, reading the tea leaves could mean the team is ready to see if they can trade Phillips this winter.
Phillips did have a down year by recent standards, but the question is whether 2013 indicates a greater-than-expected drop in his skills, and how that might influence his value to other teams given his age and the $50 million left on his contract.
For those who don’t remember, Phillips was originally drafted by the Expos in 1999. In 2002, he was part of the insane trade by Omar Minaya in which Montreal received Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew for Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, Lee Stevens, and Phillips. It is still crazy to even type that.
Without re-hashing the insanity of that trade, one interesting angle on the story is that Phillips just did not work out for Cleveland, despite being a very highly rated prospect and a key part of the Colon trade. In 2006, he was traded to Cincinnati for Jeff Stevens after failing to make the team’s roster out of spring training. After the frustration in Cleveland, in 2006 Phillips was at least a serviceable second baseman, and in 2007 became much more, sporting an above-average bat (104 wRC+, good for a second baseman) and an impressive glove. He has pretty much been the same ever since — an average or above average bat and (by most accounts) good defense at second base. In 2011, he put up his best season, as his good glove was accompanied by an impressive offensive performance: .300/.353/.457 (122 wRC+), good for 5.6 WAR. In the aftermath of that season, the Reds signed Phillips to a six-year, $72.5 million contract.
On one hand, the contract seemed large for a player coming off of a career year far beyond what he had done before, especially since he was a second baseman in his early 30s. On the other hand, it seemed reasonable for a three-win player given common assumptions about he cost of wins on the free agent market and player decline. In 2012, at least, he seemed to be worth it. Though by itself 2013 was not that impressive, if one believes he was a 2.6 WAR player in 2012, that is pretty much in line with what the contract assumes. Sure, it looked like it might get ugly on the back end, but that is true for pretty much every long-term contract given to a veteran.
Whatever internal issues the Reds might have with Phillips, let’s stick with his performance. Whether or not one thinks the original contract was smart, how much value relative to his contract might Phillips have to the Reds, whether on their team or to another?
Defense is an important part of the equation, given that much of Phillips apparent value is bound up in him having a good glove. This is not the easiest thing to evaluate, but let’s simply stick with what seems to be the majority opinion: Phillips glove is still at least above average. The main on-field issue, at least the one Fay mentions, is Phillips’ relatively poor 2013 offensive performance. After three consecutive seasons of above-average offense, Phillips hit just .261/.310/.396 (91 wRC+) in 2013. While it is fair to note that Phillips turned 32 in 2013 (age is an important part of this discussion), it is too simplistic on its own.
Actually, in some respects, Phillips was pretty much the same hitter he was in recent years. He did not walk much, but he never has, even in his good years, and he took walks more frequently in 2013 than in 2012. Phillips’ .281 BABIP is low, but not terribly low. Given the random fluctuations on balls in play, it’s not really something to worry about, especially since Phillips’ has never had a very high BABIP, even in his good years. Even in his career 2011 season, he had just a .322 BABIP — a bit high, but hardly extreme.
Somewhat more troubling was his 2013 strikeout rate. For most players, a strikeout rate just under 15 percent would be good, but given how much of Phillips’ offense is based on getting the ball into play (even if he rarely has had a high rate of hits on balls in play), it does matter. In recent seasons, Phillips has usually had a strikeout rate under 13 percent, so it is a bit of a jump. Along the same lines, Phillips’ contact rate dropped to about 79 percent after being around 82 or 83 percent in recent seasons.
On the bright side, Phillips’ power is likely mostly intact. Although his .135 isolated power in 2013 is his lowest since coming to the Reds, this was mostly due to a drop in his rate of doubles on balls in play. His rate of home runs on contact stayed about the same (or a bit higher) than in recent seasons. Home run rate is generally a far greater reflection of skill than doubles rate, which reasonably can be expected to regress for Phillips.
One important dimension of Phillips’ value is that he plays a lot of games: at least 147 every season starting in 2009. He seems to get a big dinged up now and then, but has not been on the disabled list since 2008. So he is reliable in that respect. His down performance this year, as Jeff Zimmerman noted earlier, might be related to getting hit by a pitch in on June 1. How much that really bothered him (if at all) is speculative, but it is worth mentioning.
Overall, then, we have a second baseman in his early 30s with a reputation for good defense, who does not walk much, has at least average power, and whose contact skills might be slipping. Steamer’s projection of three wins from Phillips in 2014 seems pretty reasonable on a closer examination of his peripherals. That would make him an above-average player.
The question is how much value a three-win player has given the four years and $50 million remaining on his contract. That all depends on what you make of the market for wins. If you believe that the recent infusion of cash from television contracts into the sport is going to drive even further inflation this winter, then former estimates of $5 million per win may be in fact too low, and Phillips deal could actually prove to be a bit of a bargain. However, given that Phillips’ value is heavily tied to his defensive value as he ages, and that teams have historically paid more for offense than defense, and it’s probably safer to say that this is something close to a fair contract, not that far from what guys like Shane Victorino or Angel Pagan signed as free agents last winter.
Saying a contract is “fair” does not mean it is one that would bring a big return back in a trade. Although it might be a good value in the first couple of years, as previously mentioned, the last few years are likely to look bad given Phillips’ age and typical decline, even given his past durability. Second base can be brutal for older players, and Phillips does not have the bat to provide decent value down the defensive spectrum.
This is not to say the Reds would not have a taker, or that they would have to eat most of the contract. Teams need players, second base is not terribly deep, and contenders with money and a hole at second (the reader can make her or his own list) might feel it is worth the investment. They might not give the Reds much back, but if the Reds feel they can fill second for less money, it might be worth it to move the contract and use the money for something else. Yes, Phillips had a down year, but he is still a very useful player, and the contract isn’t an albatross.
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