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How replaceable is Brandon Phillips?

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A few days ago, John Fay wrote a bit about Brandon Phillips and his future.  BeeP said that because of the extensions the Reds signed with Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, Johnny Cueto, and Bronson Arroyo, he started wondering about his own contract.  He is set to make $11 mil this season with a club option for next season at $12 mil, so it's certainly possible, as Fay noted, that the Reds could look to replace him in the near future if they deem the cost of retaining him too prohibitive. 

So this got me thinking:  if the Reds indeed decide to turn the page on the Brandon Phillips era, how easy would it be to replace his production?  Of course, a straight one-for-one replacement is likely impossible.  According to FanGraphs, only five 2B have outperformed Phillips over the past three years, and not a one of them is likely to be available for less money than they would pay him.  Quality costs money, and if the Reds are willing to spend on 2B it might as well be on the BeeP. 

But if the Reds were willing to part with him, they likely wouldn't look to completely replace his production.  Rather, they would look to a player who is significantly cheaper while also providing as much of the lost production as possible.  So the operative question is:  What kind of talent is available that is both cheap enough and good enough to replace Phillips?  If the answer is "eh, not much", it's likely smarter to try to retain him and sign him to an extension.  If the answer is "I think we could get by", it might be time to say bye-bye to BP.

So to figure this out, I started snooping around a bit.  The easiest place to find a replacement would be in the farm system.  Unfortunately, the Reds system is kind of bare when it comes to potential 2B right now.  The most likely candidates I can find to play 2B by next season are Todd Frazier, Kris Negron, Billy Hamilton, and Henry Rodriguez.  Frankly, I'm not comfortable enough with any one of these guys right now to plan on handing them the spot in 2012.  Frazier is the most major-league ready of the bunch, but his glove at 2B is unproven at best.  The Reds think he's far more likely to succeed in LF or maybe at 3B.  Negron had a decent year last year, OPSing .770 in AA, but I don't think he'll hit well enough to stick as a major-league regular.  Hamilton is one of the best prospects in the system, but he's never played a game above short-season ball.  Next year is far too early for him.  Ditto that for Hank-Rod, who will likely start next season in A+ ball.

So that means we'll have to look elsewhere.  Unfortunately, assessing the pool of available quality talent outside the system is far more difficult.  So here's what I did:  I tallied up the number of players who have maintained an average-or-better performance at 2B over the past three years.  I defined "average-or-better" as any player who accumulated six or more WAR over the past three seasons (if two WAR is average for a single season, then six WAR is average over three seasons, right?) while getting the majority of their ABs at the position.  What this will do is give us a snapshot of the overall league-wide talent level at the position.  I then did the same thing for every other position to see how the overall talent at 2B compares to the overall talent elsewhere on the diamond (if a player played more than one position, I counted him at the position he played the most).  The results were pretty interesting.

It turns out that 2B is a relatively dry position right now in baseball.  Only 10 players cleared the (albeit somewhat arbitrary) bar I conjured up.  That's not many compared to the other positions.  Here are the results:  1B - 16;  SS - 13;  3B - 14;  C - 5;  RF - 12;  CF - 14;  LF - 9.  It makes sense that the richest position right now is 1B.  Teams play their strongest hitters there, so though I haven't checked into it, I would venture to guess that 1B is always well-represented in terms of average-or-better players.  Catcher is the least represented, which also makes sense.  Those guys take a beating back there, so only the strong survive. 

It's interesting that 2B and LF are otherwise the least-represented here with average-or-better players.  I think those two positions share something in common that is really unique:  relatively few prospects ever come up at the positions.  Most 2B (like Phillips) are just shortstops that can't stick with the glove.  I think the same goes for LF.  A guy gets moved to LF when he doesn't have the speed to play CF, the arm to play RF, or the athleticism to play the infield.  They are the middle children of positions. 

But it doesn't matter why there is such a paucity of talent at the position, all I'm worried about is whether there is or not.  So back to my original point - the relative talent level at 2B is weak right now.  The likelihood that the Reds can find even a league-average replacement for Phillips doesn't look all that good.  The below-average tier of 2B over the past three years is populated by the likes of Felipe and Jose Lopez, Ryan Theriot, and Freddy Sanchez.  In other words, the mirror images of guys like Edgar Renteria and Orlando Cabrera

So I guess what I'm saying is that it looks like it is a good idea to at least pick up BP's option next year.  The likelihood that the team will be able to find a suitable replacement in the next year is just not good enough.  The best course of action is probably to pick up his option and hope that a prospect emerges who proves himself worthy of the challenge.  If that doesn't happen, they should probably think hard about hammering out a long-term extension.  It's difficult to find a quality 2B out there, so perhaps the smart thing to do is hold on to him if you got one.