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The Brandon Phillips Conundrum

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Just what, exactly, does the Reds' 2B mean to the team these days?

Have we seen the last of Phillips as a Red?
Have we seen the last of Phillips as a Red?
David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Reds entered the 2013 season with the highest of expectations heaped upon them, likely the most the storied franchise had been burdened with in nearly four decades.  The pitching staff, one of the best in the league in 2012 and one of the best in the history of the franchise, returned intact and primed for a deep playoff run, and the biggest of black holes the 2012 offense dealt with - the leadoff man - had been rectified in the best of ways with the acquisition of Shin-Soo Choo.  The Reds had a complete team, a respected team, and had the designation of NL Central favorites and possible World Series representatives bestowed upon them and, on paper, rightfully so.

Longtime second baseman Brandon Phillips, always willing to have the spotlight shown his way, embraced it.  He welcomed it, even.  Not even an opening day injury to penciled-in cleanup hitter Ryan Ludwick and the subsequent lineup shuffle sending him to hit fourth served to dampen his expectations, as he told Fox Sports Southwest in mid-April "Actually, I’d rather hit fourth than second right now," as he sported 16 RsBI through 13 games.

In fact, if Phillips' 2013 baseball card had been printed as he walked to first base in the Top of the 8th inning in Pittsburgh on June 1st, fresh off being hit on the wrist by a pitch from Tony Watson, the back of it would've told you he was having the best season of his already successful career.  You'd have seen a .296/.347/.481 line with the .828 OPS being the highest he'd ever had, and you'd have seen him on pace to drive in nearly 130 runs.  In the brightest of lights, on the biggest of occasions, Brandon Phillips was having the best season of his career, making highlight reel defensive plays, producing Web Gems that made John Kruk drool, and hitting better than he ever had.

That was it.  That, seven and a half accomplished seasons into his time in Cincinnati, was the apex of Phillips' career as a Red.

Calling something an apex means, by definition, that it's all downhill from that point, and oh, Phillips' season could've won Olympic gold for as fast as it sped down the mountain.  Phillips woke up the next morning and could barely grip a bat with the arm that had been hit, missed a week's worth of time, and struggled mightily through a .548 OPS in the month of June.

Just a few weeks after wrapping up that dismal month, an interview he'd done with Cincinnati Magazine was published in which he called Bob Castellini, the owner of the team by whom he's employed, a "liar" whose $72.5 million contract offer was "a slap in the face."  (Often omitted from the reports of this interview, by the way, is the quote where Phillips also says, "This ain’t a career. This ain’t a job. This is fun." I'm assuming he didn't say that to Castellini's face during the face-slapping negotiations.)  Phillips was hitting .266/.320/.414 when the story broke; by the end of July, he was slugging merely .396 with an OPS a handful of unproductive PAs from being under .700.

Finally, Phillips took it upon himself to interrupt an interview between Cincinnati Enquirer writer and Reds' beat reporter C. Trent Rosecrans and manager Dusty Baker to berate Rosecrans for pointing out some of Phillips' struggles in a tweet while also calling him names few have called their worst enemies.  That was on August 28th, and Phillips would go on to hit .211/.276/.263 in September and October to finish his season at .261/.310/.396, the worst of his tenure in Cincinnati.

To say Brandon Phillips had a bad summer would be the biggest of understatements.  You could make the case that from June 1st until the final series vs. Pittsburgh, Phillips went from being the best two-way 2B in baseball to being only the fourth best 2B in the NL Central, a fall so far it's hard to fathom.  Barely four months removed from the best days of his career he, and his contract, were in every trade rumor alive, most featuring words like "decline," "albatross," and "distraction."  All of a sudden, Phillips had gone from an MVP candidate to a someone worth only Dan Uggla's bad eyes and bad contract.

Walt Jocketty and Bob Castellini now have a decision on their hands they couldn't have foreseen on June 1st.  With the vultures and their underwhelming trade offers circling and media members decrying a "lack of accountability" in the Reds' clubhouse, the two men most in charge of the direction of the franchise must determine whether a bad luck bum wrist derailed Phillips' season into a whirlwind decline atypical of what his future performance may deliver, or if the true character of a man they entrusted to a fortune finally came to fore both emotionally and physically down the stretch of a high-stress season.  Jocketty must decide whether the Reds can extract more meaningful value from Phillips' on-field performance over the lifetime of the 4 years and $50 million left on his contract or if there's a team offering a package of players that could trump that; Castellini, on the other hand, has to decide whether he considers the presence of Phillips, both on the field and in his Twitter timeline, enough of a sunk cost burden that he should be offloaded at any cost whether it makes the on-field investment worse or not.

With no natural landing spot in place, they've got their work cut out for them, and that's why I'm certain that whichever course the Reds' brass takes this offseason will also show the franchise's character, too.  If Phillips is traded, it will be emotionally driven; if he's kept, it will be because the front office didn't see any trade available that could make the team on the field better.  Yes, it's a chemistry vs. numbers decision.  My brain tells me that they should keep Phillips because they can't get better at 2B with him gone, that he's a better player than he was down the stretch this season, and that he only has to have a few 2 WAR seasons to be worth his contract; my gut, however, tells me that Walt and Bob will be willing to eat his contract to send him away.  Now that he's seen his name in rumors, will he play to stay in Cincinnati the way he did when he sought the contract to keep him there in the first place, or will he become even more of a distraction than he's already been?

Regardless of what happens with Phillips, whether he rebounds in 2014 to have a full season like the first half of his 2013 or not, the best of most of him has run its course; the best of his reputation with fans, the best of his reputation with media, and the best of his reputation among baseball executives that place value upon him.  One thing is for sure, however:  whether he's traded this Winter or not, the spotlight will certainly swing brightly back upon him either in Cincinnati or wherever he lands, and we know how he plays in that scenario.

I don't envy Walt Jocketty's job on this one.