Phillips a Bust in Cleveland, a Star in Cincinnati
This is the first in a weekly look of players who began their careers in a Cleveland Indians uniform, but made their names with another team. The series will run 19 weeks, through the start of Spring Training.
By Craig Gifford
Before Brandon Phillips could become an All-Star second baseman and middle-of-the-order hitter for the Cincinnati Reds, he had a unforgettably bad run in Cleveland.
With the Indians, from 2002-2005, Phillips was known for being the centerpiece of then-General Manager Mark Shapiro’s best trade and not living up to his lofty expectations. When Shapiro traded away ace starter Bartolo Colon to the Montreal Expos in the summer of 2002, it signaled the end of the 1990s glory years and the beginning of rebuild. Phillips was the heart of that trade, the top prospect Cleveland received in return. Instead, what made the deal so great for Cleveland is it also produced lesser-known future Cy Young winner Cliff Lee and future All Star Grady Sizemore.
Phillips was given an opportunity to prove he was as good as his billing in 2003. He did little with the chance he had in the big leagues. In 112 games, he hit a paltry .208, with six homers and 33 RBI. Feeling the 22-year-old needed some more seasoning, Cleveland tabbed the heralded youngster for Triple-A in 2004. Phillips did well in Buffalo, hitting .303. Problem for the star-to-be was the second base spot had now become filled for the Indians.
Before the 2004 season, the Tribe signed veteran second baseman Ronnie Belliard, who turned out to be a find. He put forth an All-Star season that year and was just as productive in 2005 when Cleveland threatened to make the postseason, winning an unexpected 93 games.
Those two years afforded Phillips six games in the majors, each. Phillips, by the end of 2005, was 24 and about to hit his prime. Belliard was under contract for 2006, so Phillips was likely to be left out of the big league plans yet again. He started to complain. In spring of 2006, Phillips became such a headache for Cleveland manager Eric Wedge that management was forced with little choice but to trade the disgruntled and underperforming player.
What turned up was a trade for reliever Jeff Stevens from the Reds. Stevens never played in Cleveland and had a very brief three-year major league career. As soon as Phillips was shipped out of town, his promising career blossomed. In 2006 with Cincy, Phillips took flight with 17 home runs, 75 RBI and a .276 batting average. He quickly became Public Enemy No. 1 for Tribe fans, upset Phillips was too headstrong to become a star in Cleveland, but could do so the moment he went elsewhere.
Phillips, almost to prove a point or stick it to the team he felt gave him little to no chance, has had strong seasons ever since going to the Queen City. He’s been a consistent 17-20 homer threat with the Reds, topping out at 30 in 2007. Phillips has been a solid RBI guy, around the 80 mark each campaign, with a high of 98 in 2009. The batting average has been no worse than the .270s and .280s every season, reaching .300 in 2011.
The now-31-year-old, who was supposed to be a star for the Indians, reached the Mid-Summer Classic in 2010 and 2011. More than just a solid hitter, he won Gold Gloves for his defense both his all-star seasons and 2008. He is also dangerous on the bases, a threat to steal 20 bases in a year. It can be argued that Phillips, a five-tool player, has been one of the top five second basemen in the game over the last half decade.
In two postseason appearances with the Reds, Phillips has batted over .300 and hit a home run in 2010 and 2012, even making the former Tribe prospect a good crunch-time player. He apparently can come through in the clutch, where many of today’s Indians seem to falter.
Phillips’ story is a great example of how high expectations can affect a young player. After arriving in Cleveland and being tagged a future star, Phillips never could put it together, eventually becoming a head case. It wasn’t until he got a change of scenery and smaller onus to be “the man” the he fulfilled his vast promise.
There is some fear that Matt LaPorta could be today’s Phillips. LaPorta, received in the 2008 trade for C.C. Sabathia, has never met the lofty expectations placed on him. If he goes elsewhere, with a fresh start and fresh expectations, there has to be some worry he could be the next Brandon Phillips.
When Phillips’s career comes to a close in the next 10 or so years, he could well go down as one of the best second basemen of his era and a fringe hall-of-fame candidate, provided he continues on his current pace. Few people outside of Cleveland (and perhaps not many in Cleveland) will remember Phillips for his brief and frustrating Tribe tenure.
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