At long last, the rebuilding Reds have cleared some space in their middle infield, trading second baseman Brandon Phillips to the Braves in exchange for two minor league pitchers. The move fills Atlanta’s sudden vacancy at the keystone while giving youngsters Dilson Herrera and/or Jose Peraza a path to playing time in Cincinnati. Even so, it’s a surprising reversal given that Phillips, a Georgia native who owns a home in Atlanta, had previously blocked a deal to the Braves in November, one of several he has scuttled over the years.
Phillips, who turns 36 on June 28, spent 11 seasons in Cincinnati after being acquired from the Indians in April 2006 in exchange for a player to be named later (pitcher Jeff Stevens, who never threw an inning in Cleveland). He emerged as a solid, durable two-way second baseman, combining power and speed (averages of 20 homers and 19 steals from 2006-13) with good-to-great defense (+6 Defensive Runs Saved per year) while playing 150 games a year. He set career highs in 2007 with 30 homers and 32 steals, won four Gold Gloves, made three All-Star teams and helped the Reds to three postseason appearances in that span. During that time, he hit .277/.327/.440 for a 101 OPS+ while averaging 3.1 WAR per year, with a high of 4.7 in 2011.
Since that stretch, age and injuries have gotten the better of Phillips, who's averaged 2.0 WAR with a 94 OPS+ over the past three seasons. In 2016, he hit .291/.320/.416 for a 94 OPS+ with -7 DRS and 0.8 WAR (the last two were his worst showings since ’06). The Reds, who belatedly committed themselves to a rebuilding program in mid-2015, have repeatedly been stymied by attempts to move him due to a limited no-trade clause and then his 10-and-5 rights, which officially kicked in in August 2014. Over the years, Phillips has reportedly blocked trades to the Yankees, Nationals and Diamondbacks as well as the Braves, with the apparent goal of adding an extension to a six-year, $72.5 million contract that expires after this season. He didn't get one in this deal, but according to ESPN's Jim Bowden, the Braves have restored his no-trade protection (which he lost after waiving his 10-and-5 rights) as well as an undisclosed assignment bonus. For the deal to go through, Phillips had to pass a physical related to a late-season left hand injury.
For Cincinnati, the move is the next step in turning over their middle infield to a pair of 23-year-olds acquired in previous trades that have been part of their rebuilding effort. Herrera, who came from the Mets in last August’s Jay Bruce deal, hit .215/.308/.383 in 169 plate appearances with the Mets in 2014-15 but spent all of 2016 at two Triple A stops, batting .274/.335/.456 with 15 homers. Those numbers are inflated because he spent most of the season in hitter-friendly Las Vegas, but he does have impressive raw power as well as the tools to play second base.
Peraza, who came from the Dodgers in December, 2015 as part of the Todd Frazier three-way trade, provided the Reds with strong offense in a 72-game trial in 2016, batting .324/.352/.411 and stealing 21 bases in 31 attempts. Though he drew high marks for his defense at shortstop in the minors, his value was neutralized by struggles as a super-utilityman bouncing between leftfield, centerfield, shortstop and second base en route to a combined -8 DRS and 0.1 WAR. Given the ongoing presence of shortstop Zack Cozart, a 31-year-old defensive whiz with decent power and one year of club control remaining, it's possible that the Reds could play Peraza at second while Herrera gets more minor league seasoning, since the team doesn't want to bring him up to languish on the bench.
The Reds are paying $13 million of Phillips's $14 million salary, in exchange for which they've received 27-year-old lefty Andrew McKirahan and 29-year-old righty Carlos Portuondo. McKirahan is recovering from his second Tommy John surgery, done last March. He made 27 relief appearances for the Braves in 2015 on either side of an 80-game suspension for a human growth hormone-releasing peptide but was cuffed for a 5.93 ERA. Portuondo, who pitched in Cuba's Serie Nacional from 2005-2013 and signed with the Braves for a $990,000 bonus last February, put up a 3.63 ERA with 6.5 K/9 in 17 appearances totaling 34 2/3 innings for the Braves' High-A and Triple-A affiliates last year, his first stateside. A sturdy 6’ 2”, 235 pounds, he’s armed with a 90-93 mph fastball and a slider.
For Atlanta, Phillips will serve as a stopgap until prospect Ozzie Albies is ready. The 20-year-old Albies, who split his 2016 season between Double A and Triple A, ranked 11th on both the MLB.com and Baseball America Top 100 Prospects lists this winter. He has primarily played shortstop since being signed out of Curaçao in 2013, but with Dansby Swanson now in place, his future is at the keystone. The Braves had planned to use a platoon of lefty-swinging Jace Peterson (.254/.350/.366 with seven homers and 0.4 WAR in 2016) and righty-swinging Sean Rodriguez (.270/349/.510 with a career-high 18 homers and 1.8 WAR in 2016), whom they signed to a two-year, $11.5 million deal, but the latter could miss the entire season due to left shoulder surgery stemming from a serious car accident that hospitalized his wife and two children and killed the driver of a stolen police cruiser.
Neither the Braves nor the Reds are likely to contend in 2017, so this rates as a low-impact move, but the Braves have filled a pressing need at second base, the Reds get a longer look at a pair of players who have been key returns in past deals, while Phillips gets a change of scenery that should be relatively agreeable as he figures out what his next move will be.