It has been a good week to be a second baseman. On the heels of Ian Kinsler‘s big extension with the Rangers, Brandon Phillips received a roughly similar six-year, $72.5 million deal from the Cincinnati Reds. Unlike Kinsler’s five-year contract, which begins after this season, Phillips’ new contract begins this year. Does this make sense for the team given the Reds current situation?
Phillips had perhaps the best season of his career in 2011. Given that he was going to turn 31 in June and was thus looking at his last chance at a big payday, he was in no mood to offer the Reds a hometown discount during the off-season. What sort of deal did Phillips and the Reds strike? Taking into account a typical rate of decline for a veteran as well as an average annual increase in the price of a win, one estimate would be that the Reds are paying Phillips as if he is currently somewhere in between a three- and four-win player.
Phillips is a good, if not great, hitter compared to average. But that is more than enough for a second baseman. He does not do any one thing exceptionally well except avoid strikeouts. His walk rate is below average, but his contact skills and above-average power compensate for his relative lack of patience. Phillips .322 BABIP in 2011 was a career high, but was not exceptionally high by his own past performance or league standards in general. Given past performance and his age, both ZiPS and Steamer see Phillips’ true talent on offense as being closer to his 2009 and 2010 levels than 2011, projecting a 2012 wOBA of .333 (ZiPS) and .336 (Steamer). After adjusting for the Reds’ home park, that is worth about 8 runs above average over 700 plate appearances — very good for a middle infielder.
Fielding might be Phillips primary calling card, but, as always with this issue, it is difficult to say how good he is. He has won several Gold Gloves, but, well… Over the last few seasons, Advanced fielding metrics see Phillips as either a bit (DRS) or substantially (UZR) above average, and the Fans Scouting Report loves him even more. All that being said, we know that there is a great deal of uncertainty with measuring a player’s contributions with the glove, so we should be careful. Let’s say for a rough range of possibilities that Phillips is somewhere between average and ten runs above per season in the field.
Phillips seems to have a lot of day-to-day dings and scratches on his record, but he has not been on the disabled list since 2008, and consistently plays around 150 games a season, so injuries are not a big problem for him. He is also a good baserunner, so we’ll give him another run for that.
Overall, we have +8 offense, +2.5 positional adjustment, 0 to +10 runs fielding, +1 baserunning, +20 NL replacement level and 90% playing time. All together that gives us a range between around three to four wins above replacement for an estimate of Phillips’ current true talent. In other words, just about we would expect given the projected value of his contract.
This sort of number crunching is just the first step in evaluating a contract. One concern with giving a “market value” deal like this to Phillips is that is sort of assumes he will be able to stick at second base. While it is fairly safe to say he is at least fine there now, age and injuries can change that evaluation fairly quickly. For former second basemen, the next stop is usually left field. While Phillips’ bat is currently good for a second baseman, it would be borderline as a left fielder, and down the road it probably would not play there. Phillips’ lack of walks might also mean that even a small loss of bat speed due to age could seriously hurt his offensive value, as his secondary skills are not good enough to pick up the slack.
However, there is risk in every contract, and there is more more to be said about the Reds’ situation. They are not getting a discount on Phillips, that is true. On the other hand, they have made big investments in terms of both money (the mammoth extension for Joey Votto) and talent (the players traded for Mat Latos) with the goal of contending over the next few years. To skimp on Phillips after all of that would be a bit questionable. These sorts of “fair deals” can seem foolhardy down the road, but given that the Reds have decided to go “all in,” they might as well go “all in.” Whether it looks like a series of genius moves or foolhardy bravado will be a matter for future historians.