The Nationals were arguably baseball’s biggest disappointment in 2015. They had built a super rotation that included Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, and Doug Fister – with competent starting option Tanner Roark pushed to the bullpen. They had young superstar Bryce Harper headlining an equally impressive offensive core that included the likes of Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon. You would have been hard pressed to find a person that didn’t have them as the NL World Series favorites going into Opening Day. Instead they finished 83-79, seven games out of the first place in their division and fourteen games back of the second wild card.
Despite all that, they’re still in a strong position going into 2016. They have tons of talent at the major league level and a pretty solid farm system. But there are areas that still need to be addressed. With Anthony Rendon moving over to third base full time, Ian Desmond gone to free agency, Yunel Escobar dealt to the Angels, and Danny Espinosa likely to take over shortstop (at least until Trea Turner is ready), it’s not surprising to hear the Nationals are exploring their options at second base. The most recent news has them looking at possibly trading for Reds’ veteran Brandon Phillips.
I think there is a large contingent of fans that hear his name and immediately scoff. I’ll admit I was among them for a time. He’s comes off as hot-headed and, at times with the media, antagonistic. It’s easy to dismiss the on-field value of a player that you might not like. And while age has started catching up with the 34-year old, his career isn’t quite as over as his reputation might lead you to believe.
According to FanGraphs WAR metric, Phillips was worth 2.6 wins above replacement in 2015. That’s a slightly above average player. Much of that value comes from his defense though. He rocked a +5 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved). That’s above average defense and it’s the norm for him. He’s only dipped below a 0 DRS once in his career. It should be noted that his recent fielding numbers are one or two magnitudes below what he was capable of in his prime. At his age, he’s not going to improve, and it’s perhaps likely he will experience some decline.
Offensively, he’s not the player he used to be either. In 2015, he only mustered a 96 wRC+, which is 4% below league average. That’s also his best mark in the last three years. In 2014, he produced an 87 wRC+, and the year before that, a 90 wRC+. Even in his prime, he was never much better than a league average hitter. But combined with his defense, he didn’t have to contribute much offensively. That’s not as true any more.
Phillips likely won’t come cheap either, financially speaking. He earns $13 million in 2016 and $14 million in 2017. The Reds would likely be willing to cover some of that, but the more they cover the higher the prospect return will have to be. In addition, he has 10-5 rights which means he’ll have to approve any trade. That gives him leverage. In these situations, the player will often allow a trade in return for a monetary bonus – if he does agree at all.
It seems strange to me the Nationals would seriously be entertaining this option unless the prospect cost to acquire Phillips is very low. The only other reason I can see for their interest is they think Trea Turner will need more than a few months of seasoning in the minors. However the common thought by those outside the organization is he’ll be ready either by Opening Day or early in the season, at which point Danny Espinosa can just slide over to second base.
Espinosa’s career has been pretty uneven so far and after initially impressing in 2011 and 2012 with back-to-back 3 fWAR seasons, until this year, he’s been below average. But in 118 games this past season, he was worth 2.3 fWAR. That figure is pretty close to Phillips’ value, as is Espinosa’s 94 wRC+ while his +10 DRS is significantly better – though also something of an aberration as other defensive metrics typically rate him closer to average.
That’s why this tweet made more sense to me:
Sources: #Nationals want to add a second baseman, preferably a left-handed hitter. One possibility: Free agent Kelly Johnson.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) December 14, 2015
Presumably the thought process here would be to add a utility option to eventually platoon with Danny Espinosa. While he is technically a switch hitter, he’s much better when facing left handed pitchers. Therefore, a LHH platoon partner would be a logical fit. Kelly Johnson is indeed such a player.
He’s about an average defender at second base, but he can also play some first base, third base, and both corner outfield spots. Against right-handed pitching in 2015, he hit .264/.314/.444, good for a 109 wRC+. In his career, he’s hit .244/.330/.421, which is right around league average at 102 wRC+. Obviously it’s not great, but combined with Espinosa’s .269/.343/.452, 119 wRC+ career line vs LHP, the two could form a tandem that’s greater than either would be alone.
It might also make sense to check in with the Brewers on Scooter Gennett. He’s coming off something of a down season that saw him hit .279/.310/.403 vs RHP. But his career line so far is much better: .307/.339/.458, 115 wRC+. The Brewers are rebuilding and have accumulated a good amount of depth in the middle infield. Gennett, Jean Segura, Jonathan Villar, Colin Walsh, and Yadiel Rivera are all major league ready with Orlando Arcia and Javier Betancourt waiting in the minors. They could be amenable to trading Gennett and the cost could be low. If I was the Nationals, I’d check on the price for catcher Jonathan Lucroy too. They just seem too good everywhere else to roll with Wilson Ramos and his 0.4 fWAR again.
We can’t know what the Nationals are thinking and there are a lot of moving parts involved. Whether they want to get a regular at second base probably depends a lot on the readiness of Trea Turner and perhaps Wilmer Difo as well. If they truly feel they need a regular starting second baseman then maybe they really do feel Brandon Phillips is their guy. But I think they’d be much better off simply looking for a platoon partner for Danny Espinosa. At this point in their careers, Espinosa might be a better option than Phillips to start regularly at second base anyway.
Statistics and contract details courtesy of FanGraphs