It's been a weird offseason so far that, sadly, has evoked miserable memories of Jim Bowden's tenure with the Washington Nationals. Those of you who have been following the Nats since they first moved to D.C. (or, in a few cases, before that when they were in Montreal) may remember JimBo's time in Washington for more than his struggles to put a competitive big league product on the field. He also seemed to have a bit of an unhealthy obsession with his previous organization, the Cincinnati Reds.
- One of Bowden's first big splashes during his first offseason was to trade Maicier Izturis and Juan Rivera to the Angels to acquire Jose Guillen, who had his breakout (in hindsight, his career) season in 2003 with Bowden's Reds.
- Bowden returned to the well in July 2006, dealing Cincinnati four prospects and an over the hill Royce Clayton for Felipe Lopez, Austin Kearns, and Ryan Wagner.
- During the 2006-07 offseason, he added a couple more players that he had in Cincinnati, trading for Wily Mo Pena and signing Dmitri Young to a pretty team-friendly deal.
- Bowden's token former Red the following offseason was Aaron Boone, who he had drafted in 1994 while in Cincinnati.
- Finally, less than a month before being fired, Bowden signed Adam Dunn, whom Bowden had drafted in 1998.
It might not be completely fair to say that we've seen this practice end under Mike Rizzo. Rizzo's hiring of Matt Williams two years ago certainly seemed to stem a bit from their prior experience working in the Diamondbacks organization. Even this offseason's managerial search to replace Williams reportedly involved Andy Green, another former player with ties to Rizzo during his time in Arizona. Still, Rizzo hasn't made a habit, as Bowden did, of trying to acquire talent for the Nats that he had either drafted or helped develop with his previous team. That's been the case until the past few weeks, at least.......
In the month and a half since Dusty Baker was named the manager of the Washington Nationals, the Nats have been linked to three of his former players from his previous managerial stop in (stop if this sounds familiar) Cincinnati.
- The on and off links to Aroldis Chapman were nothing new, though Baker's comments about his former closer certainly couldn't have been what the Nats were hoping for from a PR standpoint.
- The reported Mike Leake pursuit during the waning days of the winter meetings seemed to come out of left field. The leaked (no pun intended) report that the Nats were making a push came a day after Fangraphs wrote a less than flattering article about Leake, whose career 3.88 ERA is 0.33 lower than his career 4.21 FIP (the disparity was actually even a bit wider in 2015) and whose batted ball profile in 2015 made him appear to be the luckiest pitcher in all of baseball. Toss in that Leake had a relatively famous run-in with Stephen Strasburg and that every report involving Leake all offseason has been that he'd like to pitch out west close to his home in Arizona, and the only link that made sense was that Baker had managed him in the past.
On Tuesday, we saw the Nats linked to a third player that Baker managed in Cincinnati, 34-year-old second baseman Brandon Phillips. Phillips, who was actually originally drafted by the organization that went on to become the Nationals, was once among the top second basemen in the game. In fact, he was likely still among the very best all-around second basemen in the game as recently as 2012, when he finished sixth among second basemen in fWAR (just 0.1 behind... well... we'll get to that other guy in a bit).
From 2006 through 2012, Phillips had an outstanding peak for a middle infielder. He churned out a 30/30 season in 2007. Phillips followed that up with consecutive 20/20 years in 2008 and 2009. In fact, in every season from 2007 through 2012, Phillips belted at least 18 homers and stole at least 14 bases. Even during those peak seasons, Phillips was never a great on base guy (.280/.329/.446), but the power-speed combination and his outstanding glove made his middle of the road OBP easier to stomach. Unfortunately, players age... and their skills start to erode. In 2013, Phillips (then 32) started to show some signs that his prime years may be over.
- He suddenly stopped running in 2013, converting on 5 of his 8 attempts. While he did once again hit 18 homers, Phillips' ISO, which had been .148 or higher in each of the previous seven years, decreased significantly to .135. He turned in his lowest batting average (.261) and on base percentage (.310) since 2006 as well.
- 2014 watched that power-speed combination crater even more. Phillips was 2 for 5 in stolen base attempts and failed to hit double digit homers for the first time since the Reds had acquired him. Rather than gradually declining, Phillips' ISO cratered 29 more points to .106.
- In 2015, Phillips had what may have been a rebound season... or he may have had one last gasp. Despite the "rebound", Phillips actually saw his ISO drop six more points to .100 (a far cry from the .170+ he hit in his three best seasons). He did start running (successfully... 23 for 26) again, which helped to recoup some of his value. Phillips had a batting average driven .328 OBP (.294 average) which was probably a mirage given that his .315 BABIP was 21 points higher than his career performance.
Phillips is a 34-year-old right-handed hitting second baseman who is due $27 million over the next two seasons. Even if everything breaks right and he defies his career trend in terms of ISO (2011-2015: .157, .148, .135, .106, .100) and continues to run like he did last season, Phillips' biggest asset would still figure to be his glove. That's frightening, considering that his glove finally seemed to show some signs of decline in 2015 (2.1 UZR/150, first season below 8.1 since 2009) and that defense doesn't typically age well.
Therein lies the rub. The Nationals have Danny Espinosa (remember when I said we'd talk about the 2b who finished just ahead of Phillips in fWAR in 2012?) already. We've had the chance to watch Espinosa in D.C. since 2010, which has certainly afforded us the opportunity to say that he's both a talented and a flawed player. Espinosa is a phenomenal defender at second base (who may play some shortstop in 2016) who has flashed above average power and plus speed for a middle infielder throughout his career. Espinosa is OBP challenged himself, though he's gotten there in a different way than Phillips has. Espinosa has proven to be a strikeout machine throughout most of his career. While walking/plate discipline may not be a strength for Espinosa (7.0% career), it is an offensive area where he's been superior to Phillips (5.6%).
The biggest problem with the Nats pursuing Brandon Phillips isn't that they'd be pursuing a player who not only, at this point in his career, is unlikely to outperform Espinosa. The bigger problem is that the player that they're reportedly pursuing has nearly identical strengths (glove, possible double digit HR/SB guy) and weaknesses (on base issues). It would be one thing if Phillips were a left-handed hitter and gave the Nats an opportunity to platoon Espinosa and/or Trea Turner a bit more often based on matchups, but he's not.
Adding Phillips wouldn't do much other than create a redundant spot on the roster at what (I would assume) would probably be a relatively small cost in prospects and a high salary. Maybe the Reds would eat some of that salary to try and get someone legitimate from the farm system, but it's still hard to imagine the Nats giving up much to get Phillips. Either way, he'd be a redundant player on the Nats roster when it has seemed like the priority all offseason has been to create versatility/flexibility. It just doesn't make a lick of sense that they'd be interested in acquiring Phillips at this point in his career.