First, I would like to say greetings to everyone here at Redleg Nation. Second, I would like to thank Chad for giving me the opportunity write a series of articles analyzing the future of various Reds players, the first of which you are about to read.
Brandon Phillips, you may have heard, plays 2nd for the Reds. He is also in a contract year. The Reds have a $12.5M option on him for next year, and there have been questions about whether they should pick up the option, extend him, or cut bait and go with a new kid from the minors. This is the question I’m here to answer.
First, let’s talk about what kind of player Phillips is right now. Since coming to the Reds (I think it’s best to discount his stats with the Indians for a number of reasons), Phillips has been remarkably consistent offensively as he hovers right around league average. How he has gotten to league average has changed, however.
Phillips once hit 30 homeruns, but we shouldn’t expect that again. His power has been trending down since 2007 when his ISO peaked at .197 (it sits at .115 currently). Fortunately, his walk and strikeout rates have improved just enough to keep him at league average. It also helps that offense has been declining league-wide for several years. If you are a league average hitter at 2nd, you’re already ahead of the curve. So far so good.
In the field, well, we all know the deal, don’t we? What adjectives can we summon? Fantastic, breathtaking, resplendent. Use whichever one you want, Phillips is fun to watch at 2B, and the numbers agree. His UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) is consistently good-to-great.
Fielding and hitting added together make Phillips all-star caliber. In a good year, he’s among the best at his position and in a bad year, he’s still nicely above average.
But who is he going to be? This is what we all want to know. We want to look in the crystal ball and see how long he’ll keep this up.
Phillips is currently in the midst of his age 30 season (though, if he’d been born three days later, we’d all be calling this his age 29 season, but I digress). Trying to figure out how he’s going to age, we find some good signs and some bad.
We can, I think, safely call Phillips a fast player and fast players do tend to age better than other players. They stay more or less at peak performance until 31 and tail off reasonably slowly for the next few years. 2nd basemen, however, tend to age like you think they do (not well).
So what’s a GM to do? When will age catch Brandon Phillips?
I am going to use Fangraphs’ WAR numbers for Phillips because BR thinks he is a below average fielder, and I think that is, quite frankly, ridiculous. From 2007-2010, Phillips’ WAR totals were, 5.1, 3.3, 3.2, and 4.3 respectively. At the moment, he’s on pace for 6 WAR in 2011, and that would be a career high, though I don’t think it’s terribly likely. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him touch 5 WAR again, but let’s put him down for 4.5 which, given last year, looks like a decent enough estimate of his true talent since he is more or less at his peak right now.
4.5 WAR is nothing to sneeze at. An average player (as in, someone who may well start for a lot of ML teams) is going to put up 2.0 WAR. Phillips is very good. Some of us overrate him, and some of us underrate him, but he is a very, very good Major League player. Aging him, given his skillset, is something of a crapshoot, though, and I find that I can’t come up with a better tactic than the standard deduction of half-a-win per season that is used by pretty much everybody. That gives us this:
Given this, picking up the option doesn’t look like a bad idea. It’s easy to get underwhelmed by Phillips offensive numbers, but given his position, they aren’t bad at all and he can certainly pick it at 2nd. The cost of a win on the open market right now is about $4.5M, which means Phillips would have to fall under 3 WAR (which he hasn’t done since his first year as a Red) to not be worth the $12.5M the Reds would owe him.
An extension also doesn’t look like a terrible idea, either. Especially if he’ll sign for less per year than the option. He figures to be worth better than $12M a year for at least the next three years, and I doubt the Reds would try to extend him for longer than that.
An aside before I close out: I know some of you are going to start howling about the Reds’ prospects. They certainly do have a lot of good middle-infielders down there. That said, the only one who I think really figures to be better than average, which is what you need if you’re going to replace Phillips, is Billy Hamilton, and he isn’t likely to be ready until the end of next year at the very earliest. When he is, there’s a nice spot to Brandon’s right where the Reds have been looking for the right man since a future Hall-of-Famer vacated the position some years ago.
Well, you can color me surprised. When I started researching this, I didn’t expect to come down in favor of anything beyond maybe picking up the option, but if the Reds can extend Phillips for something like 3 yrs/$30M, I think they should do it. If they can get him for less than that, they should definitely do it. Certainly, he could fall off a cliff — it happens, but risk is part of baseball — and Phillips looks like a decent bet.