Brandon Phillips signed a six-year extension worth $72.5 million this week, giving the Reds yet another long-term, pre-free agency deal. While not as sizable as the Joey Votto deal, Phillips' deal has its own questions centered around just what he'll be in the contract's latter years.
Last week, we looked at why extending Ian Kinsler to a long-term deal was the right move for the Rangers. Kinsler is one of the most-productive second basemen both at the plate and with the glove, and he has room to fall in value that should cushion him and the Rangers as he ages. He placed fifth in OPS+ at 114, and, according to John Dewan's Fielding Bible, was the first-ranked second baseman defensively. It's easy to see why he's lumped in with the Pedroias and Canos of the league, because he's just as good.
Phillips, on the other hand, isn't quite that productive. In 2011 he was, when he posted a 120 OPS+ and hit .300/.353/.457. But that season is an anomaly on Phillips' extensive track record. Since 2006, he ranks 11th in OPS+ among second basemen, at 102 -- he's actually been below-average offensively twice in that stretch. That's the same territory as Orlando Hudson, who is useful, but you didn't see anyone giving him six-year extensions when Hudson was 31 years old.
Phillips produces extra value defensively, like Kinsler and Co., as Dewan's latest Fielding Bible details:
Phillips is an incredible athletic infielder known for his flashy, between-the-legs, and behind-the-back plays. The numbers support his strong track record as an above-average 2B; he's even won a Fielding Bible award (2008). He's quick, demonstrates good reactions and can make the off-balance throw and quick release when the play calls for it.
What's not to like? When we compared Phillips to Chase Utleyin The Fielding Bible--Volume II, we found that Utley is much better at positioning himself pre-pitch. Phillips stands in roughly the same spot regardless of who is at the plate. On groundballs he's often able to make up for it with his athleticism. However, there are hard grounders and line drives he just can't reach because he's not positioned properly.
Phillips has the athleticism and ability to field the position well anyway, but he relies on that extensively. When his legs and speed start to go, fielding the position well is going to be more difficult. Since he doesn't have the same kind of bat to fall back on that other top second basemen do, that could be problematic. Someone like Kinsler, Robinson Cano, or Dustin Pedroia could shift to the outfield if they had to, and their bat would work fine there for a time.
Second basemen age differently than players at other positions, so whether or not Phillips will continue to produce is a legitimate concern. Nate Silver researched this idea back in 2005. Silver found that second basemen tend to already have 95 percent of their peak value achieved from ages 23 through 26, whereas the rest of the positions are at 84 percent. Second basemen don't improve much, and they also decline faster. Silver explains:
This point has been made before, but second base is something of a bastard position--it's where you wind up if you aren't athletic enough to play shortstop, but don't have the bat (or the arm) for third. Almost no players are selected as second basemen in the amateur draft, and it's rare to see a second baseman on a top prospect list. That is, second base is the one position where players are selected out for their lack of a skill, rather than their possession of one; it should be no surprise that they don't tend to age well. There have been a couple of second basemen like
Joe Gordonand Jeff Kentthat have peaked notably late, but those guys go against type.
There are three second basemen on Kevin Goldstein's top 101 prospects list for 2012, and the first one comes at #58. The other two are in the bottom 15. This is a normal thing now, as it was when Silver researched it. The graphic representation tells the same story of decline:
Silver was focusing on offensive value, but the story isn't any better on the defensive side of things. Defense peaks ahead of offense, even for the most athletically-inclined position on the diamond, shortstop. Second basemen don't have the same abilities as shortstops and are not immune to this decline. Since Phillips relies much more on his athletic ability than he does preparation, instincts, and the like, he's likelier to fall off than some other keystoners unless he completely revamps how he plays the position once age sets in.
It's not going to be the deals to players like Joey Votto that end up harming franchises and keep them from competing. Votto is an elite talent, and short of a serious injury that he's likely insured against anyway, he's going to keep hitting for most of the life of that deal. It's going to be contracts like this Phillips one, where a player who might be just average in a year or two is going to be paid big money in a deal that locks them in place long-term -- the ones where the player is already on the wrong side of 30, and is being given a deal that goes past their mid-30s anyway, at a position that historically doesn't do well in that time frame. It's the kind of contract that is just begging to backfire.
Phillips isn't guaranteed to fall apart, by any means. But there's risk in this contract, at this position, more than there has been for the other deals we've seen signed the last few weeks. It keeps the Cincinnati core together a little while longer, though, and if the Reds win, the aftermath of Phillips' deal will seem trivial. With the way second basemen age, though, you can't help but wonder if they could have done better if they just let him finish out his previous contract and hit the market as a 32-year-old second baseman.