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The End of an Earache

You can hear the gears grinding, as Indians fans try to solve one of the great mysteries of our age:

Why did the Indians give up on Brandon Phillips?

All sorts of explanations have been proffered.

"The front office soured on him."

"He was too stubborn."

"He needs a change of scenery."

How about the obvious explanation:  He sucks.

Phillips' numbers do not project to a decent-hitting middle infielder.  He's got mediocre rate stats and weak peripherals -- in particular, a bad walk rate that has persisted for his whole career.  More precisely, he never developed.  There is not one shred of evidence to suggest that he has improved one iota in the past four years.  He hasn't made adjustments.  The scouts say it, the team officials say it, writers from Baseball America say it.  And it's definitely in the numbers.  Year after year of the 0.06-ish walk rates, the bad OBP.  No end in sight.

No end in sight.

He is the same hitter he was in 2002 -- 880 OPS in Double-A, 770 OPS in Triple-A ... 560 OPS in the majors.  It may be that he's never really made an adjustment his whole life.  Maybe he's exactly the same hitter he was at age 14, he just got bigger and stronger.

It's tempting as a fan to feel that a player can't ever really "lose" his "upside" -- it helps keep the rooting interest alive, and indeed, this is why guys like Travis Lee and Gabe Kapler keep getting jobs.  But there does come a point where you have to acknowledge not just that a player hasn't reached much of his upside ... but that the experts were wrong about his upside all along.  Phillips has been misconstrued as an A-prospect who is somehow just stuck in purgatory.  He's not an A-prospect anymore.  He's a C-prospect.  In fact, technically, he's not a prospect at all.  But any way you slice it, he'll be 25 in June.

He'll be a 25-year-old who hasn't really mastered Triple-A pitching.  And who's out of options.  That's who he is now.  That's who we're losing.  That's who we're willing to lose in a move that clearly has the win-now mentality behind it.

So let's crystal-ball this a little bit.  First, take a moment to browse over Ron Belliard's career numbers.  Like Phillips, Belliard is a hitter who lives and dies on his natural instinct for making contact.  Like Phillips, Belliard has a nice little bit of power but not much patience.  Belliard, however, was a better hitter at age 22 (Triple-A) than Phillips has ever been.  Still, Belliard has had his starts and stops in his career.  He's fallen off track -- oddly bottoming out at age 27 -- and struggled to get back on.  He's dealt with great expectations.  But Ron's story obviously has a happy ending -- a starting job for a contending team, some $10 million in career earnings.  He's not really a star, but in the right year he can sneak onto an All-Star team.

I think you know where I'm going with this.  Ron Belliard's career is, at this point, the best-case scenario for Brandon Phillips.  He goes somewhere else.  He gets a new start, away from the memories of missed expectations, away from the players who passed him on the depth charts.  He works with a hitting coach who, for some reason, can get through to him where a guy like Derek Shelton couldn't.  And in his late-20's, he puts together a nice little career for himself.  Maybe even as nice as Ron Belliard's.

I wish that for Brandon Phillips, but the Indians can't give that to him.  They can't give him a fresh start, and they certainly can't give him a major league starting job.  He's convinced himself that he resuscitated his hitting in 2004 with a half-empty .300 average in Triple-A, and that the Indians botched it by not giving him another chance as a big-league starter in 2005.  It may be that he needs to get beaten down by another full season of struggles in the big leagues before he'll get serious about making adjustments.  Or it may be that he already is serious about making adjustments, and he just can't.  It takes talent to make adjustments, and maybe that's a talent he just doesn't have.

Belliard broke hearts in Milwaukee and Colorado before finally finding his rhythm in Cleveland -- in his sixth season.  That is Brandon Phillips' upside now.  And he won't be trying to reach it here, because sometimes a team just runs out of options -- that's why they call them "options." So good luck, Brandon Phillips.  We liked you.  We'd like to have you on our team.  We'd like to see you reach your potential, and we'd like to see you do it with the Indians.  But we just don't have time for any more experiments.

And by "experiments," I really mean "guys who can't hit."