In his latest roster prediction for The Athletic (which is free for the next 90 days and I can’t recommend their content higher), Alec Lewis failed to include my man crush, Brett Phillips, on it, predicting Bubba Starling, Ryan McBroom, and Erick Mejia as the final positional players to comprise platoon/bench spots. I have some fairly large issues with this exclusion and they are extremely rooted in bias for Phillips.
I know, Brett Phillips hasn’t shown enough at the plate to warrant plate appearances. Across 324 major league plate appearances, Phillips has a collective OPS of .620 and a wRC+ of 62. And at just under 26 years old, that’s certainly a red flag for a former Top 100 prospect. If you break his batting stats down to just his time in KC, it gets even worse. In 202 plate appearances, he’s hit for an OPS of .544 and a wRC+ of 44. To put that in perspective, that’s under ‘13 Esky/‘06 Berroa (49 wRC+) and JUST above ‘02 Neifi Perez (39 wRC+). That is not good and I totally get that (but you’re wrong and I hate you).
Before spring training was cancelled, Phillips was rocking a better-but-not-great .733 OPS which very much surprised me. Every at bat I saw from him looked pretty brutal. But he had 7 hits in 31 plate appearances with a .387 on-base. His overall profile this spring has looked a lot like his line from his first appearance in the league with Milwaukee, where he slashed .276/.351/.448. Even when Phillips couldn’t put the bat on the ball he could still draw out professional ABs fairly consistently. In 2019, Phillips saw an average of 3.99 pitches per plate appearance, which puts him at 48th-best rate in the majors around the likes of Pete Alonso and Michael Conforto.
Obviously he doesn’t have the upside that those two have at the plate, but what he’s lacking at the plate he makes up for in the outfield. In just 29 games in 2019, Phillips added 5 Outs Above Average according to StatCast. That puts him among the top 60 defenders in the game already. If that was stretched out into 150 games, he’d have the most OAA in the game (Victor Robles recorded 23).
We should also speak about his speed a bit. No he’s not Jarrod Dyson out there, but he isn’t exactly Salvy either. Between Omaha and KC in 2019, Phillips stole 25 bags. Statcast recorded his sprint speed to be 28.0 ft per second (just above average) in 2019. In 2018 however, Phillips was at the 29.0 ft/sec mark, tying him with Starling Marte and Manuel Margot for 30th fastest in the majors.
So all in all, to me, Phillips has shown enough to get a shot. As bad as his bat was in 2019, he still posted a positive fWAR (0.3). He’s gonna be 26 years old when/if the season starts. He’s out of options. The Royals aren’t expected to be contenders in 2020. It was time to give him a shot to sink or swim in larger sample size and it appeared that he’d finally get his shot.
The players pushing him out
All of the off-season questions appeared to have answers that included Brett Phillips still getting enough reps to prove whether or not he’s going to be a part of the next group and what his role would be. That is until non-roster invitee, Erick Mejia, entered the fray with his .500 OPS in spring training coming off a 2019 season where he posted a .721 OPS and 78 wRC+. Those numbers are encouraging from a 25-year old switch-hitter that can play anywhere but aren’t exactly big enough to force the issue with Phillips. Don’t get me wrong here, I like Mejia as a player, especially if he’s destined to be a super utility guy. Versatility is so hawt these days and that’s not lost on me. But I do not understand keeping a guy who you just removed from your 40-man roster and has 3 options remaining and get rid of a guy who’s floor is a fourth outfielder.
If you need a backup shortstop that can play elsewhere, I’ve got an idea that could potentially solve that problem and keep the potential upside inventory too. A couple weeks ago, it was reported that the Royals were interested in the A’s Jorge Mateo. Mateo could most definitely fill the super utility role up the middle in all forms (SS, 2B, CF). He’s a free swinger with elite speed and last year showed some power with 19 dingers in AAA, If you dealt Phillips for Mateo, Phillips would have to beat out veterans Robbie Grossman and Chad Pinder for opportunities, and I think he potentially could. I think Oakland would actually look at this trade. The A’s have been reportedly interested in Tim Hill. Cool, throw him in there, sounds good. There are other arms that can use his innings and he’s not showing much in Spring anyways. FWIW, Baseball Trade Values sees this trade as a big time overpay for Mateo, but I think it’s way closer than that all things considered.
Sign me up for this deal yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
All this is without even mentioning the Bubba Starling aspect to this. He’s gonna be 28 years old in August, plays good defense and runs well, but does neither as well as Phillips. And not many 28-year olds just figure something out at the plate without showing a bit of promise prior to breaking out. Even Bubba’s progress at AAA was arguably overshadowed by Phillips’ 2019 contributions in Omaha (.310/.358/.448 vs. .240/.378/.505).
Let’s do a blind ear-ball test here:
Player A is a 27 year old player that can play all outfield positions well, runs well, and a career high OPS in AA or higher ball of .806. Player’s best MLB OPS is .572 and has an extensive injury history.
Player B is a 25 year old player that can play all outfield positions well, runs well, and a career high OPS in AA or higher ball of .944. Player’s best MLB OPS is .799 has a consistently clean bill of health.
Who you taking?
Why is Bubba a lock to make this team and not the more likely player to pass through waivers without being claimed by another team here? Nostalgia? Pride? The hometown hero fairy tale? Yes I am aware that Bubba’s spring training OPS was 1.208 prior to shutting down. That’s very interesting. He posted a 1.057 last Spring too and still wasn’t good enough to earn major league ABs. I want it to work out for Bubba too, but not at the expense of losing a younger player with arguably more upside.
Then we move to the re-signing of Alex Gordon. I’ve made my opinion on that pretty clear and I mostly stand by it. When the guys on the Royals beat told us that Gordo’s return wouldn’t hamper opportunities for younger guys, I softened on the stance. Hearing now that that might not actually be the case has re-lit the fire in my belly for it. If you really still think that Gordon’s presence on this team needs to be there more than Phillips’, then go back and read that article. To me, this is the Duda-Goodwin situation from 2019 and that did not work out in the slightest.
This is all possibly an overreaction to a roster prediction and nothing has officially happened (as of this writing). But it’s not like this type of thing hasn’t happened in the recent past. That occurrence is still fresh in my mind and when I get a whiff of it potentially happening again, it makes me wonder if the front office really learned from that experience enough to have earned our faith. I hope the prediction is wrong and the principle of protecting inventory reigns supreme. We shall see.