The Baseball Equivalent of the book "Dow 36,000"
Why Hasn't Brandon Phillips Developed?
One of the bigger prospect failures in recent years is Brandon Phillips, the Cleveland infielder who drew comparisons to a young Barry Larkin at one point. Why hasn't he developed, and is there any hope for him?
Some history first. Phillips was drafted in the second round by the Expos in 1999, out of high school in Georgia. He hit .290 with 12 steals and a .408 SLG in his pro debut in the Gulf Coast League, impressing with his athleticism, defensive potential, speed, and decent early hitting. Promoted to the Sally League in 2000, he struggled, hitting just .242/.306/.405, though he contributed 11 homers and 23 doubles. Although his error rate was higher than average, he continued to impress with his range and arm strength. I gave him a Grade B- in the 2001 book.
Phillips split 2001 between Class A Jupiter and Double-A Harrisburg, playing well at both levels. He hit .298/.337/.449 after his promotion to Double-A, and combined for 30 steals in 39 attempts. These numbers were quite good for a 20-year-old middle infielder making his debut in Double-A. His defense improved, and it looked like his offensive skills were developing quite nicely. He also earned raves for his work ethic, attitude, and intelligence. The Barry Larkin comparisons started at this point, and I gave him a Grade B+ in 2002.
The Expos assigned Phillips to Double-A to begin '02, and he thrived, hitting .327/.380/.506 in 60 games. He was then traded to the Indians as part of the prospect package for Bartolo Colon. The Indians sent him to Triple-A Buffalo after the trade, where he hit .283/.321/.453. His walk rate fell off a bit compared to '02, but he maintained good production overall, combining for 16 homers and 19 steals. Considering his age, he was a top-notch prospect, no question. I gave him the coveted and rare Grade A rating heading into 2003.
The Indians moved Phillips to second base in '03, and stuck him in the regular lineup. He was awful, hitting .208/.242/.311 in 112 games. He returned to Triple-A in '04 and played better (.296/.353/.416), but couldn't re-establish himself in Cleveland's plans for '05. His performance in Triple-A this year saw him hit 15 homers, but he tailed off in other categories, hitting just .256/.318/.409 overall.
What happened here, and is it too late for Phillips to rebound?
He is still just 24, so yes, he has time left on the clock. But I am increasingly skeptical about his chances. At a minimum, a change of scenery is needed. The Cleveland braintrust has soured on him, and Phillips doesn't seem to react well to how he has been handled.
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.
Reportedly, Phillips showed a much better work ethic and attitude in 2005, working hard at fixing his swing, but this didn't result in better performance. Indeed, he was worse in '05 than he was in '04 or '03. I think this is a classic case of a player who needs to move on, clear his head, and get a fresh start in another system.
If you made a major investment in Brandon Phillips three years ago, I'd like to offer my apology.