Brandon Phillips, and building a better infield

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Brandon Phillips has waived his no-trade clause and is reunited in Washington with his former manager, Dusty Baker. He’s not the hitter he once was, nor is he the fielder he once was – so is there any value here? Could this be an impact deal? Absolutely.

Phillips is closer to the end of his career than the beginning, that’s certainly true. He’s coming off two pretty down offensive years, also true, but his 2015 campaign was pretty solid, as he slashed  .294/.328/.396. Phillips, who will be 35 halfway through 2016, would give Washington more team speed and base-stealing ability, which Baker is known to covet. His strikeouts were way below career norms and he posted a .315 BABIP, some 21 points above his career .294 number, both of which are warning flags.

Let’s suppose he’s just an “okay” hitter. What if Phillips’ real value to Washington is on defense?

For all of 2015, the Nats found themselves with a unstable, incoherent infield mess. The club had players learning positions on the fly; there were established starters playing poorly; there were players going on and coming off the Disabled List as a matter of routine. The endless cycling of players should be a cautionary tale in how durable, steady good-ness is not a trait to be taken lightly.

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One has to wade through defensive metrics carefully and with all kinds of caveats. FanGraphs recommends using three-year samples when it comes to metrics like Ultimate Zone Rating, and in some cases that just isn’t possible.

As a hitter, Ramos had an awful year. As a defender, he posted the third best runs-saved mark for all major league catchers, behind only Toronto’s Russell Martin and Kansas City’s Salvador Perez. Danny Espinosa didn’t have enough plate appearances to qualify, but if we widen the search to include him, we find that Espinosa had the second best runs-saved number for second baseman.

Other than that, there’s little positive to say. Desmond had a particularly terrible April but struggled across the board all year. Escobar, who has since been dealt, was among the worst defensive third basemen in the game, though, in fairness, he did hit. Clint Robinson turned out to be a terrific, underrated hitter, but on defense – put it this way, he was least sub-par at first base.

Zimmerman is an intriguing case. He’s barely logged a full season’s worth of innings at first base. His 2015 UZR was below average; his defensive runs given up were also well below average. Was that because he was a bad defensive first baseman, hurt, learning a new job as he played, or all of the above? He has a wonky shoulder and his throwing is a problem, but “Z-man” made some spectacularly athletic plays at first last season, which leads me to think that Zimmerman, a college shortstop, a player who transitioned from third base to left field in the middle of his 2014 campaign, could become a top-notch defender at first. This position also limits how much his poor throwing arm negatively impacts his defensive production.

Let’s now throw Phillips into this mix.

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Phillips has played a lot, and he’s played well a lot. It’s reasonable to conclude that a 35-year-old Phillips is no longer a great defensive player, a +8 UZR player, like he once was. But even if he’s just a +2.0 UZR type, which is basically an average defensive player – he would’ve been an upgrade for the 2015 Nats.

I believe that with Phillips locking down second base, there would actually be a chain reaction of value-adding events, as follows:

  • Phillips is durable and consistent. Between 2006 and 2015, he’s never played in fewer than 140 games, and he’s only had one sub-two WAR season since 2007.
  • Phillips’ essential stability gives rookie shortstop Trea Turner an excellent double play partner who will pick him up when he makes mistakes and guide him through the bumps in the road. There were plenty of bumps early on in Phillips’ career.
  • Should the Nationals decide to give Turner another year of seasoning in Triple-A, Espinosa shifts back to his natural position at shortstop.
  • It also means Rendon plays third base and stays there – he’s not bouncing across the diamond to second. In 2014, Rendon’s only fully healthy season to date, he accumulated 9.2 defensive runs saved – fourth best mark for third basemen in the majors.

From a financial perspective, this is also a reasonable move. I’m not up to speed on aging curves, but between 2013 and 2015, Phillips posted an average of 2.2 WAR. Let’s assume that’s what he’s good for in 2016, or even 2.0 WAR. He’s owed $13 million and $14 million over the next two seasons; that money, for two-ish WAR, represents solid value for Washington.

It’s true that Phillips doesn’t address the Nats’ need to get more left-handed, and he’s not a game-changing bat or glove, but he brings stability and coherence – traits Washington sorely lacked in 2015.

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