Around this time last year, we began to learn how tight of a grip Brandon Phillips had on the Cincinnati Reds. The team’s 2B for the last decade had rightfully earned his 10/5 rights - the rights that allow a player who has been in the league for 10 years and with the same team for 5 consecutive years to veto any trade in which he’s involved - and as the team became increasingly aggressive in their rebuilding strategy, it became clear that any and all veterans on the roster would be actively shopped.
That had already claimed Mat Latos, Alfredo Simon, Mike Leake, and Johnny Cueto, and by December of 2015 both Todd Frazier and Aroldis Chapman were added to that list. The gutting left just six real veterans on the roster at the time: the debilitatingly injured trio of Homer Bailey, Zack Cozart, and Devin Mesoraco, the slumping Jay Bruce, and the longtime 4-3 pairing of Phillips and Joey Votto. Given Votto’s career year and gargantuan contract, it wasn’t the least bit surprising that Phillips became the next player the team attempted to move, as on two separate occasions the Reds reportedly tried to ship him out - once to the Arizona Diamondbacks, and once to the Washington Nationals. The Arizona deal fell apart due to Phillips’ salary, according to FOX’s Ken Rosenthal at the time, while Phillips himself reportedly nixed the Nationals deal with his 10/5 rights after they balked at extending his contract.
A year later, the Reds are in a similar situation with Phillips, as they’ve continued to aggressively rebuild their roster, but the scenario around GABP this year appears to be a slight bit different this time around. For one, it’s not just Jose Peraza who’ll be deserving of more middle infield innings this year, there’s Dilson Herrera, who the Reds picked up by trading Bruce to the New York Mets at the non-waiver trade deadline. More importantly, however, it appears Phillips may be more willing to leave town, as FOX’s Jon Morosi recently relayed.
Sources: Brandon Phillips is more willing to consider waiving no-trade clause this offseason than last, with only 1 year left on deal. @MLB— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) November 12, 2016
Perhaps he’s finally sick of all the losing in Cincinnati, and at 35 years old wants a legitimate chance to make it back to the playoffs before his playing days are over. Or, perhaps it’s that he’s not willing to concede those playing days are nearing an end at all, and doesn’t want to have to take a back seat to a 22 year old. That he actively sought an extension beyond the 2017 season in the proposed Nationals deal may exemplify the latter, and it may now be hitting him that the best way he can earn a deal for 2018 and beyond is to log full-time innings in 2017, something that may not be in the cards for him if he stays in Cincinnati.
The timing of this is far from ideal, however, both for the Reds and on Phillips’ end. As FanGraphs’ Craig Edwards noted back in August, 2016 marked the single greatest full season for 2Bs collectively, as their power surge and consistent defense made them more valuable relative to their positional peers than at any point in modern history. Pair that with a FA 2B list that is “highlighted” by 38 year old Chase Utley, and two things become distinctly clear: teams got great production from their 2Bs across the board last season, and almost none of those 2B became free agents at season’s end.
That puts BP’s priorities in a bit of a predicament. Of the ten teams that made the 2016 playoffs, only two saw their incumbent 2Bs’ contracts end at the end of the year, and one - Neil Walker of the Mets - returned after accepting the team’s $17.2 million Qualifying Offer. That leaves the Dodgers, a team that willingly let Utley reach free agency and recently also traded veteran 2B/LF Howie Kendrick away despite a seemingly obvious void. Those actions led Bill Shaikin of the LA Times to ask the Dodgers’ front office about the seeming 2B opening last week, at which point he was told the team may opt to use their in-house options, traded Kendrick for financial flexibility, and aren’t actively attempting to address 2B at the time.
Perhaps that’s just posturing, or perhaps it’s a pretty clear indication that Phillips won’t be on the Dodgers’ radar this winter.
Browsing around for other potential contenders in 2017 doesn’t exactly open many doors, either. The list of teams that won more than they lost in 2016 and still missed the playoffs includes the likes of the Yankees, Mariners, Tigers, Astros, and Cardinals, each of whom boast either solid in-house options or legitimate MVP candidates. And if that didn’t complicate things enough, the rumored fire sale coming from the Tigers has Ian Kinsler as a potential fit with the Dodgers, and he’s both younger and cheaper than Phillips (which completely skips over how much better Kinsler’s been than BP in recent years anyway).
So, there’s a legitimate impasse. If BP’s priority is winning, he’s pretty well squeezed out of landing with a contender, unless he’s willing to assume a bench role (which would inherently reduce his trade value, leaving the Reds kicking dirt). If BP’s priority is playing time, finding him still remains tough, since there aren’t a ton of teams out there who are both rebuilding and actively seeking 36 year old 2Bs to eat up 600 ABs in a season, much less those making $14 million.
Realistically, there only appear to be a pair of somewhat feasibly landing spots.
The Atlanta Braves matched the Reds with 68 lackluster wins in 2016, and they sure don’t appear set to do a ton of winning in 2017, either. That hasn’t stopped them from actively adding payroll, however, as they’ve signed both R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colon to help anchor their staff as they move into their shiny new Cobb County ballpark in 2017. It’s that latter bit of information that may keep the Phillips idea on the radar, since Phillips grew up and went to high school in the Atlanta area and they’ve surely got a pile of tickets to sell. The Braves have prized middle infield prospects in Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies, of course, but while Swanson made his MLB debut last year, Albies, still just 19 years old, struggled a bit in AAA and recently fractured his elbow, leaving just Jace Peterson as the lone Brave who would have to make way for BP at 2B for 2017. It would mean losing, yes, but it would also open up playing time.
Los Angeles still sticks out as the other reasonably realistic option, albeit with the Angels, not the Dodgers. As FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan pointed out last week, the Angels aren’t out of sight in terms of contention, but their lack of depth and awful production at certain positions has doomed them of late. One of those positions in particular is at 2B, where the Angels ranked 28th of 30 in team fWAR just last year (conveniently just one spot behind the Reds), but they may see Phillips as a more consistent bet than what they got from Johnny Giavotella last year. As Sullivan notes, the Angels have a barren wasteland of a farm system, but they do appear to have some financial flexibility under the luxury tax threshold for the first time in a few years, which may allow for a fit between them and Cincinnati, at least monetarily. And it may be the kind of move to help sell fans on the idea that they’re not wasting another prime year of Mike Trout by hoping for breakouts from non-prospects.
Ultimately, the ball is still in Phillips’ court, since he’s got the ability to say no to any deal put forward, but it does at least appear that he finally sees the writing on the wall. It will take some finagling, but there just might be a landing spot for him after all.