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It sure would be nice to have a player just like Brett Phillips right now, wouldn’t it?

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Royals need a long-term center fielder, but, well, whoops

Brett Phillips #35 of the Tampa Bay Rays celebrates after hitting a 3-run home run in the 10th inning to defeat the Detroit Tigers at Tropicana Field on September 17, 2021 in St Petersburg, Florida.
Brett Phillips #35 of the Tampa Bay Rays celebrates after hitting a 3-run home run in the 10th inning to defeat the Detroit Tigers at Tropicana Field on September 17, 2021 in St Petersburg, Florida.
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The long-term position of weakness for the Kansas City Royals is clearly center field. They either have a legit prospect or a legit big league contributor—and in some places, both—throughout the whole infield, catcher included. The same is true for both corner outfield spots to a lesser extent, but right field is the spot that teams from Little League on stick your worst defender (cough, Jorge Soler, cough), so it’s less of an emphasis.

Meanwhile, the Royals’ center field options aren’t great, and pretty much every center field option has some pretty serious drawbacks. Michael A. Taylor has been an excellent defender, but he’s a poor hitter and loses all his value if he’s not elite on the field. Adalberto Mondesi is an option, but the Royals don’t trust him to be an everyday player; besides, his next professional inning in the outfield will be his first. Kyle Isbel would be out of position, ditto Andrew Benintendi. Edward Olivares, ah, doesn’t have the defensive chops, either. There are no top center field prospects in the system.

But what if I were to tell you that there is a perfect center field option for the Royals? This player:

  • Is young, having just turned 27
  • Is cheap, only making the league minimum salary
  • Is an excellent defender, with +16 and +14.4 DRS and UZR, respectively, in almost 1000 center field innings
  • Has produced at the plate at a league average rate (102 OPS+) over the last two years
  • Is under team control through 2025
  • Is a great guy with an infectious, lovable person

That player is Brett Phillips! Of course, if you’ve been following the Royals, you know that Phillips used to be a Royal himself. But this offseason, the Royals traded him for Lucius Fox, a 24-year-old no-hit utility infielder who has a career .600 OPS in Triple-A and a career .660 OPS in Double-A.

This is, sadly, quite inline with the history of Dayton Moore’s regime, that of discarding or banishing young players for no apparent reason. We’ve already seen that this year with Edward Olivares. Now, Olivares might not be a long-term option. But we know damn sure that the guys that have soaked up his playing time this season—Jarrod Dyson and Ryan O’Hearn, mainly—are absolutely not a long-term option.

Phillips is, in fact, one of multiple players who the Royals have moved on far too quickly. Just in the last five years, the Royals have traded four players for nothing while replacing them with worse players. The victims include Phillips as well as Jose Martinez, Frank Schwindel, and Brian Goodwin.

Oops, Wrong Decision

Player Last Royals Age Post-Royals WAR Player Replaced By Player Replaced By WAR
Player Last Royals Age Post-Royals WAR Player Replaced By Player Replaced By WAR
Brett Phillips 26 1.9 Jarrod Dyson, Franchy Cordero 0.0
Jose Martinez 27 4.2 Paulo Orlando, Melky Cabrera 0.6
Frank Schwindel 27 2.1 Ryan McBroom, Ryan O'Hearn -1.6
Brian Goodwin 27 1.9 Lucas Duda, Bubba Starling -1.5
TOTAL N/A 10.1 N/A -2.5

While there’s not clearly a one-to-one comparison with who replaced these guys, I chose the two players whose playing time was inextricably increased as a result of the transactions. As you can see, the four players who the Royals gave up for nothing have gone on to put up over 10 WAR per Fangraphs, while the collection of players that the Royals instead went with have produced at or below replacement level.

Look: every team has these kinds of players that slip through their organization’s fingers for one reason or another, just like every team makes decisions to cut bait from a player and doesn’t get stung by it. Franchy Cordero and Khalil Lee are two obvious points here: the Royals parted with them, and they have been remarkably awful in big league action this year.

Furthermore, it’s clear that the Royals would still have missed the playoffs if they had Brett Phillips, heck, they’d have still missed the playoffs if they kept all four of those listed players. Drafting and developing players is important, and the Royals were so bad at that for so long that there was no way getting around a crash once Eric Hosmer et al. left in free agency.

But that’s not the takeaway here. The takeaway is that while even the best teams swing and miss with talent evaluation, the best teams are able to find and create cost-controlled talent. Over and over and over and over and over and over again, the Royals give playing time and money to filler veterans rather than giving their own younger players a chance. Many of these young players won’t pan out, but the Royals just don’t give theirs a chance to do so.

The sneaky thing about this particular weakness within the Royals organization is that each individual decision can be explained away as “not a big deal.” However, add all those decisions together and they start to add up. One Brett Phillips type miss is not going to hurt you in the long run. One Brett Phillips type miss every year? That adds up.