It’s been a tough couple of days to focus on baseball. With the NBA sitting out in protest of the violence and racial injustice going in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and many baseball teams following suit by not playing either (including the Brewers, Dodgers, and the San Francisco Giants, my family’s team), it was difficult to really concentrate on anything, let alone Royals baseball. I hope to write a piece about everything going on, and how it connects to Royals baseball, but my thoughts are still too fresh, and frankly fired up, to write anything coherent on these issues at this point.
That being said, this transaction happened yesterday that brought me somewhat back to baseball:
A roster shakeup was expected, especially after Bubba Starling returned to the active roster not too long ago. With a surplus of outfielders on the Royals 40-man, and Mike Matheny running into a situation in the final game of the series against the Cardinals on Wednesday where Randy Rosario was the Royals’ lone bullpen option, Dayton Moore needed to do something to clear room and add another reliever to the roster. With Phillips and Starling both out of options, it made sense one of them would be dealt or designated for assignment, and thankfully, Moore was able to get something of value back for Phillips.
With the trade, the Royals were able to clear a necessary roster spot to give them more flexibility (important with 17 consecutive games on the horizon). In addition, the Royals received a high-upside position prospect with Minor League options that the Royals can stash in KCK. Nonetheless, the trade of Phillips is a bit bittersweet for some Royals fans. After all, Phillips was an enjoyable personality for the Royals, especially during COVID, and though he was never quite able to solve his contact and hitting issues as a Royal, his arm, glove, and surprising speed on the basepaths made him a valuable bench weapon at times. Royals fans have to wonder if Phillips would have broken out had Alex Gordon actually retired this off-season and not come back for at least one more year in Kansas City.
But in addition to the great “what if” of “would Phillips have succeeded had he been given more of a shot to start”, the trade of Phillips also officially closes the door on the trade Moore made with the Milwaukee Brewers for Mike Moustakas near the trade deadline of 2018.
After surprisingly signing with the Royals on a discount prior to the 2018 season, Moustakas was expected to fetch the Royals some kind of trade during the first year of the Royals’ “official rebuild.” The Royals ended up losing 104 games in 2018, and Moose, though a fan favorite and a valuable member of the 2014 and 2015 AL Pennant teams, didn’t make sense considering the state of the Royals. Luckily for Moore, he was able to swing a trade to Milwaukee which brought back not just Phillips, but also right-handed pitcher Jorge Lopez, a former top prospect who struggled with command issues in the Brewers organization.
Lopez, as expected, struggled to find a role in Kansas City. He showed flashes of proficiency on the mound, with a near No-Hitter against the Twins in 2018 being the prime highlight. However, a 6.42 ERA in 47 appearances and 158.1 innings of work did him in as a Royal, and Lopez was eventually released by the Royals after only one mediocre appearance in 2020 (and later picked up by the Baltimore Orioles).
That being said, while Lopez teased Royals fans in 2018 with his near-immaculate performance against the Twins, Phillips was always seen as the more prized player of the trade package. Phillips had been a Top 10 prospect at one point in a strong Houston Astros system (he was actually the Astros’ 6th best prospect according to the Baseball American Prospect Handbook in 2015, and was ahead of outfielder Teoscar Hernandez and relief pitcher Josh Hader). Furthermore, Phillips seemed to have all the tools to be a successful starting outfielder: he could run, he had an excellent arm, and he could make spectacular players in the field. He showed flashes of that not just with the Brewers in 52 games in 2017 and 2018, but even in his 84-game stint in Kansas City.
In fact, the play that the Rays’ official Twitter account shared actually took place at a game where I had outfield seats and saw his catch up close (you can kind of see my light blue shirt very briefly):
Despite his defensive tools and base running (according to Statcast, his Speed Score ranks in the Top 5 percent of the league), Phillips struggled to make enough contact at the plate to earn any kind of regular playing time with the Royals. In 236 plate appearances with the Royals, Phillips posted a slash of .178/.256/.308 with a .564 OPS and an OPS+ of 52. Those kinds of metrics weren’t enough to help him separate him from the pack of a crowded outfield, which included not only Gordo, but Billy Hamilton in center field last season, and Whit Merrifield in center and Hunter Dozier and Franchy Cordero in right field this year (before Cordero got hurt of course).
Furthermore, Phillips’ struggles also failed to separate him from fellow outfielder Bubba Starling, the former Royals first round pick from Gardner, Kansas.
In many ways, Phillips and Starling were quite similar: they both possessed some outstanding defensive tools and athleticism, but they struggled to find consistency at the plate at both the Major and Minor League level. To more analytical Royals fans, Phillips was seen as the better option, as Phillips could at least draw a walk in comparison to Starling (Starling’s BB/K ratio was 0.17, 10 points lower than Phillips’ 0.27 ratio in KC and 0.42 mark the past two seasons), and Phillips was a couple of years younger as well. However, the “local” flair of Starling seemed to win over most Royals fans (especially those on the Kansas side), and it became common for Royals fans to forgive or sympathize with the problems of Starling while failing to absolve Phillips for the same issues (which was frustrating to see for Royals fans who were less “swayed” by Starling’s Kansas ties).
When the Royals acquired Cordero, it seemed like the writing was on the wall for Phillips, and that certainly seemed to be true after he accumulated only six plate appearances after a start against the Twins on August 8th. It didn’t quite make sense why Phillips didn’t appear much after that 9-6 win over the Twins at Kauffman Stadium: at the time, Phillips was posting an .837 OPS. However, he struggled in the limited opportunities since that game, and he saw his OPS plummet .681 before he was traded.
And that’s how the Phillips-era ended: a brief streak and glimpse of potential, only the end with a whimper and a quiet exit, as Phillips’ trade occurred on a Royals off-day.
How the trade went down seems fitting considering Phillips’ history as a Royal.
So does this mean that the Moose trade with Milwaukee was a failure? That is still to be determined, especially with the Royals acquiring a player from the Rays. In addition to having a great “DC comics inspired name” Lucius Fox appears to be an interesting prospect. His hit tool leaves a little bit to be desired, but he could add some speed and defense up the middle or at the very least in center field. He seems to be a typical Royals prospect in the Moore-era: some interesting tools, but questionable contact and plate discipline skills. Here is what Clint Scoles said about Fox on “Royals Academy“:
As far as the player the Royals are getting, I compare Fox to Kevin Merrill, the shortstop they acquired last year from the A’s. A light-hitting athletic middle infielder who can probably play centerfield. As usual, much of his value is via his speed, defense and is a project with the bat. For a 23-year-old from a non-baseball centric country (Bahamas) to be a late bloomer wouldn’t be shocking, but when I say that, I’m geared more towards him ending up the best case as a Paulo Orlando type more than a real difference-maker. That said, you’re not going to get a real difference-maker for a player that was on the cusp of getting cut.“Royals Trade Brett Phillips” by Clint Scoles; Royals Academy
And thus, it seems like many fans may say “the Royals lost that deal” in retrospect, and it’s understandable. After all, Lopez and Phillips are both officially gone, and Moustakas just signed a four-year deal with the Reds this off-season. That being said, the Royals were lucky to get anything for Moose, let alone two formerly heralded Brewers prospects. Remember, the Royals were prepared to lose him in free agency after the 2017 season, and while Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain earned lucrative deals, Moose somehow got overlooked on the market. Moore did the right thing by re-signing Moose and flipping him for something, even if the package didn’t necessarily work out. It was a necessary risk, and probably all they could get, especially since Moustakas was on a one-year deal at the time, and only signed for a paltry amount with the Royals.
If anything, the struggles of Lopez and Phillips show how difficult it is to acquire long-lasting talent through a trade deadline deal. Sure, there are success stories, like Johnny Cueto from the Reds and Ben Zobrist, but more often than not, the “Trade Deadline” deals fail to live up to fruition, especially for the club receiving the prospects. If a team is willing to let go of their prospects, no matter how highly regard they are, it is usually a questionable sign. In this day and age, teams do not just deal young, promising players with years of club control. Those players, especially the ones who pan out, are key to long-term success, especially for small-market baseball clubs like the Royals.
Phillips and Lopez carried risk, and unfortunately, it did not work out for Kansas City. Does that mean it was a bad deal though? Not quite. They didn’t become long term options for the Royals, but in theory they were the right move: the Royals thought they could turn Lopez and Phillips’ fortunes around in their player development system. It didn’t work out, but hopefully the Royals PD learned some things that could result in better results with Cordero, Ronald Bolanos and perhaps Fox as well.
Maybe Phillips didn’t become the starting OF that Royals fans hoped when he was acquired. In addition to the Cordero trade, the return of Gordo and the move of Dozier to the outfield also spelled doom for Phillips in KC even as early as Spring Training this year. However, Phillips was a fun player to watch and I know many Royals fans will wish him nothing but the best in his new surroundings in Tampa Bay.
It will be intriguing to see if Phillips finds a similar path…or if he continues to struggle to find at-bats and playing time in Tampa, much like in his two-ish year tenure in Kansas City.