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Offseason Issue: Second Base

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The Indians will pick up Ronnie Belliard's 2006 option any day now, so why am I making this an issue?

Because of Brandon Phillips. He's spent essentially three seasons in Buffalo, and what have we learned? Not much. In 2005, Brandon hit .256/.326/.409. That's not good, especially for someone who's been there since the end of 2003. He hit seven more home runs than last year, but the strikeouts rose along with them. I don't think at this point he can be a starting major-league middle infielder; he simply hasn't proven he can hit major-league pitching.

The Indians aren't that high on him as well, and may have the set the stage for dealing him by re-signing Ramon Vazquez to be their reserve middle infielder. So what the heck happened to Brandon, and can still make a career for himself?

When Phillips was being touted as the next Barry Larkin (and yes, I was one of the touters), it wasn't necessarily his minor-league numbers that spurred people to predict stardom, it was his physical tools. He could steal bases. He had a good arm. He had good batspeed. He was smooth and flashy in the field. Actually, he still has those skills, but the manifestation of them has veered off course.

John Sickels of Minor League Ball recently featured Phillips, asking, like many have done recently, "Why hasn't Brandon Phillips developed?"

I think there many facets to the answer, including:

  1. The Indians probably rushed him a bit. I say this with the knowledge that the team had no other options at second, unless you wanted to count John McDonald. But at the very least they could have brought in someone to challenge him for the starting job; if you remember, they basically handed him the job going into Spring Training. There was no Alex Cora-type player to push him. I think the main reason why Cora was signed last season was that the Indians did not want to make the same mistake with Peralta that they made with Phillips. They'll probably do the same thing with Garko this upcoming season, with either Ben Broussard or a veteren playing the role of Cora.
  2. He didn't react well to failure. Remember that Jhonny Peralta was also pressed into action in 2003, didn't hit, but returned last season a totally different player. Phillips, from my vantage point, is still trying to recover from his first professional failure. He's gotten homer-happy, getting away from the linedrive stroke that made him a top prospect. Sickels notes:

Scouts say that Phillips has developed two major problems over the last three years. His swing is messed up, due to excessive power-consciousness. He was an effective line drive hitter earlier in his career, but now it seems like he's trying to pull everything for power, leaving him vulnerable to pitches on the other half of the plate, particularly breaking balls. That problem should be correctable, but Phillips hasn't been able to adjust, which leads to the second problem: his attitude. Phillips had a reputation for a strong work ethic and excellent personality, until 2003. That year, Phillips had emotional trouble dealing with his inability to hit major league pitching. There were complaints that he was sulking too much, not working hard enough, not listening to the coaches. It was the first time that Phillips had ever truly struggled as a baseball player, and he didn't handle it well.

Now, as to the question if he can turn it around: of course he can. He's still young enough to make a career for himself, and his tools are still there. Can he do it with Cleveland? I doubt it. He's out of options, and with second base and shortstop spoken for next season, any shot of him being with the Indians next years rides on him making the team as a utility infielder, which doesn't seem likely now that Ramon Vazquez will be back. And besides, what is Brandon going to show you as a backup? Barring a major injury to Peralta or Belliard, he might get 150-200 at-bats, and probably would be lucky to play once or twice a week.

I think the best course of action for both parties is to trade Phillips this winter. He needs a change of scenery, and the Indians need to get some kind of value for him before they lose him on waivers next spring.

Is Belliard a long-term answer? Maybe. Belliard's been a key contributor for the past two seasons and will get a chance to have a third productive year. Middle infielders don't tend to age well, though, and Belliard will be 31 next season. If the Indians are lucky, they might be able to get another 2-3 good seasons out of Ronnie. Hopefully that will buy enough time for the Indians to develop someone who could take over in 2007 or 2008, or they'll have to find the next Ronnie Belliard via free agency.

Update [2005-11-4 19:17:57 by Ryan]: It's offical; Belliard will be back in 2006.