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February 13, 2017

Transaction Analysis

Old Second Basemen Never Die

by Bryan Grosnick and Jeffrey Paternostro

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

KANSAS CITY ROYALS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired OF-L Donnie Dewees from Chicago Cubs in exchange for RHP Alec Mills. [2/8]

The Royals traded for a very Royals type of player, with the bonus of having him also be a Cubs plate approach guy. Dewees’ profile is more fourth outfielder than starter, but he is very likely to reach that role, with good bat-to-ball skills, plus speed, and the ability to play all three outfield positions—although the arm is stretched in right field and the glove is stretched in center field. He’s not quite as fast as Terrance Gore, but he’s a much more well-rounded player and could play a similar role on the Royals as soon as 2018. —Jeffrey Paternostro

ATLANTA BRAVES
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Acquired 2B-R Brandon Phillips and cash from Cincinnati Reds in exchange for RHP Andrew McKirahan and RHP Carlos Portuondo. [2/12]

After years of dancing around it, the Reds have finally been able to ship Phillips to another team. In 2013, he rejected a trade to the Yankees*. In 2015, he rejected a trade to the Nationals**. And last year, he reportedly was upset with Cincinnati management over a proposed trade to these same Braves***. Now, finally, he’s off to Atlanta, with the Reds paying almost the entirety of his remaining contract and getting back a pair of non-prospect relievers in return.

It’s hardly the return they might have imagined a few years ago, but that’s partially a factor of Phillips not carrying the same reputation or talent that he did back then. Possessed of still-excellent contact ability, Dat Dude’s offensive game relies entirely on that tool; he can’t draw a walk to save his life and he no longer has the high-end power he used to.

If you examine other win metrics outside of Baseball Prospectus’ WARP, you’ll find that Phillips has a much higher value thanks to a different view of his defense. FRAA, which does not rely on stringers eyeing batted ball data, chooses to rate Phillips’ glove as somewhere between indifferent and poor, depending on the year. Over his career, he’s been worth -23.9 FRAA, and he’s been well below average in four of the last six seasons. A metric like UZR had previously given Phillips a great deal more credit for his defense on average, but has recently started valuing Phillips as average or worse as well.

PECOTA only pegs Phillips to pick up 0.7 WARP in 2017 despite regular playing time, and I’d wager a guess that the system a) doesn’t buy that he’ll hit 30-plus doubles again and b) is taking a long, hard look at the aging curve for post-35 second basemen. So why pick him up—not to mention the no-trade clause and all the baggage that comes along with him—and displace a better-projected player in Jace Peterson? Is it as simple as veteran presence? Is it the recent news that Sean Rodriguez could miss the entire season with a shoulder injury? Or is it just part of a set of moves that replaced the ineffective bats and arms of the 2016 season with (perhaps only slightly more effective) veterans in time to open the team’s new Cobb County stadium?

Phillips loves Atlanta, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he takes the field for his new team with a spring in his step and positive attitude, and the cost was so cheap that there’s little downside to the move for the Braves. And if this means Peterson takes over for Adonis Garcia at third base, it may be a small upgrade overall. The Reds will be building for the future, testing out either Dilson Herrera or Jose Peraza at second base in the absence of the team’s long-term pivot. That makes sense, the future’s all they’ve got. The Braves are supposed to be rebuilding too, and it won’t be long before Ozzie Albies is getting his audition at second base. In the meantime, they’ll see what Phillips has left in the tank, and if it’s not much maybe they’ll wish that he’d vetoed this deal as well.

*In his alternate universe, after acquiring Phillips the Yankees play almost exactly the same caliber of baseball over the next three seasons. Instead of acquiring Starlin Castro from the Cubs in exchange for Adam Warren prior to 2016, the Cubs send Castro to the Angels for Matt Shoemaker. Not much changes, save PECOTA’s projection for 2017 is even rosier on the North Side.

**In this alternate universe, after the Nationals acquire Phillips Daniel Murphy takes the second-best offer on the table, staying with the Mets instead of moving to their NL East rivals. The Nats get decent production out of Phillips, but Murphy wins the MVP award filling in for the division champion Mets at first and third base and bursting out as a breakout star. The Mets lose in the LDS in place of the Nationals, who make the Wild Card but lose to the Giants (and Madison Bumgarner) in their only playoff game.

***In this alternate universe, literally nothing changes. Bryan Grosnick

CHICAGO CUBS
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Acquired RHP Alec Mills from Kansas City Royals in exchange for OF-L Donnie Dewees. [2/8]

It’s not a secret that the Cubs could use some extra arms to work in the back-end of a rotation or soak up innings in the pen, and Mills is a majol league-ready one. He fills up the zone with four pitches, and both the fastball and changeup are potentially plus offerings. The fastball is a hard sinker with which he can miss bats or induce weak contact, and the changeup works off the heater well with 10 miles an hour of velo separation and similar hard fade and sink. The breaking balls are both below average, but if the Cubs decide to work him out as a starter going forward he only really needs to get one to work to fit in the back-end of a rotation. And he’s already shown he can get MLB hitters out in the pen with just the fastball and cambio. —Jeffrey Paternostro

LOS ANGELES DODGERS
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Signed 2B-L Chase Utley to a one-year, $2 million contract. [2/12]

Watching the Dodgers last year, I wouldn’t have believed Utley was worth 2.4 WARP. But maybe I’m looking at the wrong things these days. Maybe I’m just blinded by what I remember of the “old” Utley—the 2007-2010 hitters’ hitter capable of 75-plus extra-base hits and elite, steady defense at second base. Today’s Utley isn’t all that much different from the player he was at the beginning of this decade: unspectacular defense and getting by on his wits in the middle of the infield while working counts and grinding out gappers. Last year, by True Average, he outproduced Chris Davis, Jose Bautista, Todd Frazier, and Jason Kipnis. His best use is as a platoon bat, but until his knees fail him again he could very well turn in another season as a league-average second baseman.

The only real question to me is this: With his veteran wiles and astonishing pedigree, why didn't this Hall of Fame-worthy talent draw more than a couple million and incentives? The Blue Jays are relying on Devon Travis staying healthy to try to extend their window of competition, the Nationals could really benefit from moving Daniel Murphy to first base, and the Royals are making their last push with Whit Merrifield in the center of the diamond. The Dodgers could use Utley as a super-sub and potential platoon partner for Logan Forsythe, but they should’ve been outbidding everyone for Utley, not giving him a bargain contract that even the Rays wouldn't have balked at. He may not be a two-win player again, but he’s certainly more valuable than a first-year arb middle reliever or fifth outfielder. He’s still Chase Utley, even if that means something different now than it used to. —Bryan Grosnick

Bryan Grosnick is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bryan's other articles. You can contact Bryan by clicking here
Jeffrey Paternostro is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jeffrey's other articles. You can contact Jeffrey by clicking here

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