Brandon Phillips: Second Baseman, Pirate?

“Whoever possesses that chest, possesses the leverage to command…”

You might think that leverage only applies to a blacksmith who breaks a pirate out of jail so that he can assist him in the tracking and rescue of the blacksmith’s favored lady.  You would be wrong.  After Brandon Phillips obtained a treasure chest full of awards this season, his third Gold Glove and his first Silver Slugger award, he spoke with John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer and made a comment that has sparked a bit of a controversy.  Some see it as a poor attitude while others see it as a great businessman’s acumen.  Would it make more sense to set him in his natural surroundings and let him sail the deep waters as a seafaring pirate on the accursed Black Pearl, looting and plundering from anyone he can?

“Yeah, I’ve got some leverage,” Phillips said. “Whatever happens, happens. I’m just happy I’ve had the success. This was a very blessed year.”

Phillips has always been a fan favorite, a great player, a fun loving guy, an artisan with his glove and possesses a highlight reel that is, at this point, almost self perpetuating.  He’s also 30.  That age in any other industry would put him right at the beginning of his earning peak, but in baseball, it puts him right on the plateau and staring down the decline of his career, no matter how gifted an athlete he is.  So he’s left with the one chance to go for that last contract that will maximize his earning potential.  Much like the world of Will Turner chasing after the love of his life in Port Royal and beyond, Brandon Phillips’ world leaves him with no choice but to turn pirate and use his leverage to obtain that which he desires.

For those unaware of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, specifically the first one, Will Turner is an assistant to a drunkard of a blacksmith whose in love with a distinguished woman.  When she is kidnapped by pirates during a raid of their town in search of a gold medallion, Turner gives up his life putting in long hours and hard work as a blacksmith and enlists the help of the captured pirate Jack Sparrow.  Together, they set out on an adventure to rescue his bonny lass and along the way commit many acts of piracy.  In the end, all who know him accept the reality that Turner has become a pirate.

With Phillips, it’s much of the same.  He’s a hardworking second baseman who moves from spot to spot in the lineup, hits for power, hits nicely for average, fields nearly everything on the right side of the field, and makes spectacular snags and throws.  While he may have more gold and silver and is certainly recognized more for his achievements than a blacksmith who does the work his drunk boss is unable to do, he still doesn’t have the respect he thinks he deserves.  And what of the one true love?  Is Phillips turning pirate in the search of his greatest treasure?   Not a woman but the tempting green of money?  Is he in this only for the paycheck?  Does he even care about the game anymore?  Did he ever?

Dan Uggla, at age 30, signed a contract from the Atlanta Braves for 5 years/$62m while Rickie Weeks agreed to a contract with the Milwaukee Brewers for 4 years/$38.5m.  To anyone who watched Uggla scuffle with hitting last year, despite his hitting streak, you know the early returns on his deal have received poor marks from the Braves’ perspective.  And it might be an argument for some, but if you look at Weeks’ performance stacked up against Phillips, Brandon would have the edge, certainly in the eyes of Gold Glove and Silver Slugger voters.  So there’s your range, 4 – 5 years, $38.5m – $62m.

Is Phillips worth it?  His defense, his production, his ability to move up and down the lineup, his good nature, his fan friendly persona, the idea that without him the Reds won’t win a world series in the next two years, they all indicate that he is worth it.  However, you will be paying into his decline and with a small-ish budget, that’s rarely a wise move.  That’s from the Reds perspective, but what of Phillips’ perspective?  He feels he’s the best second baseman in the National League, maybe even in all of baseball and he feels that he should be compensated as such, either with the Reds or elsewhere.  The money is almost secondary to what the money represents: validation.

So does that make him a pirate?  A seeker of riches willing to travel anywhere and use every bit of leverage he has in an effort to track down every single doubloon he can get his greedy hands on?  He doesn’t have much of a Jack Sparrow swagger to him, does he?  See, the world he exists in nearly demands that he has to use every bit of leverage he can when it comes to the biggest contract of his career.  And the only reason we are taken aback by the idea he would use his performance and awards as a way to garner more money is because we know the Reds are not a club simply flush with cash and it could very well mean that their second baseman, our second baseman, won’t be the second baseman for long.  And so we long for “playing for the game,” “hometown discounts” and “homeboy hookups.”

From that perspective, everything would indicate that the villain of this story is not the pirate who was created out of necessity, but the world that created the necessity of the pirate.  Baseball has long been a sport of classes, rich and poor, AAAA and the bigs and it’s getting more so as the contracts balloon.  When it comes down to it, the rooting should be against the world the players exist in rather than rooting against the players that exist in that world.  The reality is twofold: Phillips deserves the money he craves.  The Reds would like to have Phillips patrolling second base for at least 3 more years, if not 4 assuming his skills don’t decline rapidly.

Some numbers that are being tossed around for Phillips include 4 years/$48m and if Phillips agreed, that would be manageable for the Reds.  If he wants more than that, he will likely have to sail to finer waters.  But if that happens, don’t view Brandon as the villainous scalawag Jack Sparrow, a pilferer of cash, leaving one port for the riches of another.  See him as the man his world turned him into, the victim of circumstance: Will Turner.

So if one of the greatest Reds ever leaves, I’ll be the one humming “Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me” with a frown on my face from the world who forced that move.