The New York Yankees made headlines by committing $299 million to the quartet of Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Hiroki Kuroda, but their wisest move of the winter thus far was turning down a Brett Gardner for Brandon Phillips trade offer from the Cincinnati Reds.
According to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman rebuffed a deal that made sense, in theory, for both teams.
After losing Robinson Cano to free agency, the Yankees have a major hole at second base. With Shin-Soo Choo bolting Cincinnati for an impending huge payday, the Reds have a need for an on-base machine atop their lineup.
Despite the natural correlation between the clubs, the current version of Brandon Phillips would have represented a short-sighted and poor investment by the Yankees. If he were a free agent, the cost factor, only in dollars, could be justified. However, sacrificing a player like Gardner for an overpaid and declining second baseman in Phillips would have been foolish.
From 2009-2011, Phillips was exactly the kind of high-end second baseman that the Yankees would look at to fill the gaping hole left by Cano's departure. During those years, the Reds star posted a .449 slugging percentage, good for eighth best (subscription required) among second baseman.
When factoring in his perennially excellent defense, netting him a Gold Glove in 2013, a case could have been made for Phillips as a top-five second baseman in baseball.
Those days are long gone.
Over the last two seasons, while he's still displayed stellar defense, Phillips' offensive game has plummeted to the middle of the pack among second basemen. Unfortunately for his value, his contract status—four years and $50 million remaining—doesn't match his current production.
Since the start of the 2012 season, 190 hitters have posted a better on-base percentage than Phillips' .315 mark. If we use OPS-plus, he ranks 192 of 200 qualified hitters. Despite high RBI totals (77 and103, respectively) boosting his offensive profile, reputation is superseding results when baseball fans discuss the production and value of the current version of Brandon Phillips.
To be fair, Phillips, manning an offensively deficient position of second base, shouldn't be compared across all hitters in baseball. Yet even if we judge him just through the prism of second basemen, a star capable of replacing Robinson Cano doesn't emerge.
Over the last two years, Phillips' 96 OPS+ ranks 15th among second basemen, placing him in the middle of the pack. Cano, the clear top offensive performer at the position, laps the field with a 146 OPS+, 50 points better than what Phillips now provides.
At this point, Phillips is an average offensive player, with a total game that is above-average due to an award-winning glove. For the Yankees, a player of his caliber would actually make sense under different circumstances.
Of course, this offseason—and the cost of Phillips—does not operate in a vacuum.
Source says reports of Yanks talks about Reds' Brandon Phillips "way overblown." If Yanks trade Gardy, it'd have be for "valuable pitching."— Bryan Hoch (@BryanHoch) December 12, 2013
Although Brett Gardner seems expendable after the signings of Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, the Yankees shouldn't move him unless a substantial return is brought back through trade. General manager Brian Cashman echoed those sentiments to the New York Post:
The only way I am interested in moving Brett Gardner is somehow feeling we are putting ourselves in a position to feel better about ourselves in the short and long run. Or it would have to be with this move combined with some other things somehow when the dust settles is supposed to make sense.
If the right deal comes along, possibly for starting rotation help or a more cost-effective second baseman, dealing the dynamic Gardner would make sense for New York. Cashing that chip, possibly the best and only route the team has to get better through trade, in for Phillips would be a waste of an asset.
Even if the Yankees were truly interested in the deal, willing to bet on Phillips providing enough value over the next four years to offset the $50 million he's owed, the sentiment was probably nixed when talk of a no-trade clause and contract extension surfaced, per the New York Post.
After agreeing to a six-year, $72.5 million contract last year, per Cot's Baseball Contracts, Phillips placed certain teams on a partial no-trade list. One of them, as that New York Post piece explains, was the Yankees. With Robinson Cano's free agency on the horizon, the clause would give Phillips' agent leverage to possibly extract more money from New York if this exact scenario played out.
Should the Yankees have traded Brett Gardner for Brandon Phillips?
According to Fangraphs' value calculations, Phillips was worth $12.9 million last season. In order for him to justify the four years and $50 million remaining on his deal, he would have to stave off any further decline during his age 33-36 seasons. If he asked for a raise, the potential for contract and true value to meet would have been nearly impossible to imagine.
While the narrative is begging for the Yankees to find someone capable of filling Cano's enormous shoes in New York's lineup, that player likely doesn't exist. Yet a suitable facsimile to Brandon Phillips may already be on the roster.
Thus far this winter, the Yankees have inked four high-profile stars, but a fifth move went virtually unnoticed. Despite the lack of fanfare, the team completed a transaction for a possible Cano replacement. By allotting up to $3 million for Kelly Johnson, per MLB.com, the Yankees found a player who has nearly been Phillips' offensive equal over the last two seasons.
Clearly, over the course of their respective careers, Phillips has been the superior player to Kelly Johnson. However, the gap hasn't been big enough recently to surrender Gardner and future payroll flexibility in the name of acquiring a former star.
In a different year, on a different contract or for a different player swap, Brandon Phillips could have arrived in New York as a capable and sturdy replacement for Robinson Cano.
This wasn't that time for the Yankees. By turning down a Brett Gardner for Brandon Phillips swap, the Yankees set themselves up to be a more complete team in 2014 and beyond.