Braves Acquire Brandon Phillips for Practically Nothing

Braves Acquire Brandon Phillips for Practically Nothing

By Rdikeman (Own work) [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons

The Cincinnati Reds spent the offseason trying to find a new home for Brandon Phillips. They nearly sent him to Atlanta in January, but Phillips balked at the deal. He wanted further assurances that his no-trade protection would be respected even as a trade would typically negate any 10/5 conditions – or 10 years in the majors, 5 years with the same team.

In the end, the Braves and Phillips came to an agreement with the Braves honored a limited no-trade clause that blocks trades to a dozen teams that was already part of the deal. Those dozen teams are unknown to this point, but most of the time, each year, a list is filed of teams the player would not accept a trade to. One can assume the list includes teams with the least chance to be successful in 2017, though cities Phillips is not fond of may also be included. Further, the Braves agreed to pay Phillips a bonus of $500,000 in the event that he’s traded.

The money part of this deal is very fascinating. Shortly after the 2012 season began, Phillips agreed on a six-year, $72.5M contract extension with the Reds that went into effect that year. After making $12.5M in the first year of the deal, he went down to $10M the following year and with each subsequent season, his salary went up $1M. This year, the final season of that deal, is worth $14M. There are also other conditions like award bonuses ($75K for All-Star selection) and some deferred money (unsure about the specifics there). What is most interesting about this deal is that the Braves are on the hook for just $1M for the 2017 season with the Reds covering the rest of the money.

The Braves completed this deal without having to surrender a prospect. Lefty Andrew McKirahan and righty Carlos Portuondo will head to the Reds in the deal. McKirahan is the more interesting name of the two because he pitched in 27 games for the Braves two years ago. A former Cubs farmhand, McKirahan was a 2015 Rule 5 pick by the Marlins. At the time, he was coming off his Age-24 season split between High-A ball and Double-A where he had a 2.08 ERA and a 4 K/BB rate.

After failing to make the Marlins, McKirahan was waived and picked up by the Braves. His time with the Braves was interrupted after three games because of a PED suspension. Once able to return in late July, McKirahan was a regular member of Fredi Gonzalez‘s bullpen. His final 19 games were especially ugly, though. In 18 innings, he gave up 16 runs while striking out 14. Last spring, he was expected to compete for a bullpen spot, but a recommendation of a second Tommy John surgery ended his bid. He was not expected to compete for a bullpen spot this spring.

Portuondo, who spent eight years in Cuba’s top baseball league, lasted just one year in the Braves’ system after Atlanta gave the defector $900K nearly a year ago. A fastball/slider pitcher with decent movement on his low 90’s heater, Portuondo spent last year with Carolina and Gwinnett. His numbers were pedestrian with some poor control, especially for a 28-year-old.

To sum up, the Braves surrendered two minor league bullpen depth arms and absorbed a million dollars for a three-time All-Star, four-time Gold Glove winner, and one-time Silver Slugger. Of course, to be fair, Brandon Phillips is not that guy anymore. His game took a step backward after 2011. Since then, his wOBA has been between .300 and .325 with a five-year average of .313. His wRC+ has been anywhere between 88 and 101 with a 94 average. After a number of years as one of the top ten or so second baseman in the game, he’s a borderline Top 20 second baseman now.

Projections for Phillips – take them with a grain of salt because they include the Reds park – obviously did not expect much of an improvement for a guy entering his Age-36 season. PECOTA projected .269/.306/.390 with 12 homers, 10 steals, and a 0.7 WARP. Steamer expected similar results. That said, if Phillips’s bat ultimately performs closer to the last two seasons rather than the two projections I mentioned, the Braves are getting a guy who hit .293/.324/.405 over his last 1200 or so PA with a .315 wOBA and 95 wRC+. Not a great improvement, mind you, but a more valuable player than the PECOTA/Steamer version.

While we are on the subject of value, we cannot ignore that Phillips’ declining value hasn’t been solely a result of his bat. His UZR/150 was between 8.1 and 12.3 for five years before 2015. That season, it fell to 2.1. Last season, it was -2.3. Strong DRS and rPM numbers both cratered last year. Defensive metrics are notoriously unreliable for just one season, but it seems clear that Phillips has lost a step and his instincts aren’t nearly as quick. He turns 36 in June so that shouldn’t be surprising. How far his defense deteriorates, however, could be something to watch. If he’s at least average, the Braves will be happy.

By SD Dirk [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Where does Phillips fit in? Well, the Braves clearly felt pressure to make a move in response to Sean Rodriguez‘s car accident. A lot is still unknown about just how severe Rodriguez’s shoulder surgery was as I’ve heard between 3-6 months of recuperation time as a possible time table.On the other hand, David O’Brien tweeted that “most if not all” of the 2017 season could be lost for Rodriguez. Expected to platoon with Jace Peterson at second, Rodriguez was a solid addition for the Braves this offseason before the injury. Here’s the bad news – Phillips is not a better platoon option. He has carried a reverse split the last three years of .286 wOBA/76 wRC+ against lefties and .319 wOBA/98 wRC+ against righties. Peterson showed potential platoon ability by putting up a .326 wOBA and 101 wRC+ last year against righties. Relegating Peterson to just backup duty would appear short-sighted, though the injury to Rodriguez and lack of a clear option for a fourth outfielder might prompt the Braves to do just that.

Of course, Phillips is only a stopgap. He would be that even if he weren’t a free agent following the 2017 season. Ozzie Albies is on his way and while his numbers at Triple-A were underwhelming, it’s important to remember that the biggest reason the Braves demoted him back to Mississippi was to get time at second with Dansby Swanson. In Albies’ final 21 games at Triple-A, he hit .282/.367/.376. I wouldn’t call that a guy needing a demotion to Double-A. Nevertheless, at just 20 years-old and one season above A-ball – plus an injury to end 2016 – the Braves would like to go slow with Albies. The 2017 roster looks like it could compete for a playoff slot, but avoiding arbitration for another year while letting Albies mature more could be the better play for the Braves.

When he’s ready, though, Phillips could be repackaged. The Braves may hold on to him if they are in a playoff race, believing his veteran presence and decent bat off the bench could be useful. On the other hand, a good season for Phillips could mean that the Braves not only got the Reds to pay 93% of his salary, but they also potentially landed a better prospect in a trade than McKirahan or Portuondo – which isn’t hard because neither are prospects. That, my friends, is why John Coppolella will be named Executive of the Year at some point.

There’s really nothing to be upset about with this trade. The injury to Rodriguez created a need and while the two players aren’t the same type of player, Phillips helps to fill that need while costing the Braves next to nothing in the process. In a few years, if a retrospective was done on this trade, the Braves either win this trade or at least don’t lose it. That is the kind of deal you make every single time.


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