The Dodgers haven’t played their first Spring Training game yet and, already, some leading pundits are speculating about trade possibilities. Buster Olney of ESPN recently said this:
This is speculation from me. We know that beginning in the off-season the Reds called around about Brandon Phillips. We know the Dodgers have indicated a willingness to move an outfielder. I look at the Dodgers and Reds in a possible deal down the road because we’ve heard the Dodgers infield situation isn’t good. Alex Guerrero, the young infielder from Cuba who they’re transitioning to second base, it’s not going well. It doesn’t look like he’ll be able to play that position. . . . If the Dodgers determine that Matt Kemp is healthy, they’ll have a lot of motive to move Andre Ethier and maybe there’s a potential match with the Reds and Brandon Phillips.
Hey, it’s always fun to speculate about trades. Sure, the Dodgers may prove to have a glut of quality outfielders (especially if Joc Pederson can demonstrate that he’s ready to contribute – even as a platoon player) and, of course, the uncertainty about who will play second base must be a bit unsettling. So Olney’s suggested scenario may seem like a win-win at first glance – he seems to have missed the fact that such a deal would leave the Reds without a second baseman – unless you count Skip Schumaker and, well, never mind . . . if you can’t say something nice about someone . . . moving on.
Now, that’s not to say that the Dodgers and Reds are not great potential trade partners, because they are. And that’s not to say that Andre Ethier shouldn’t be traded – because, from this writer’s perspective – he absolutely should! Just (probably) not for Brandon Phillips – at least not straight up.
What? Trade Ethier to the Reds . . . and NOT get Brandon Phillips in return?? Madness, you say? Well, let’s look this over one step at a time.
OK, so Phillips was an All-Star and won a Gold Glove. That’s looks impressive. And he drove in 103 runs, which sure “sounds” impressive but, for context, first consider that Phillips had 666 PA batting mostly cleanup behind Choo (OBP .423) and Votto (OBP .435) (and Cozart or Heisey or whoever was inexplicably batting second). Not only were two of the three batters in front of him on-base beasts, but they got themselves into scoring position on their own power (i.e., by hitting a double or triple or stealing a base) 95 times between them (which is a lot). If Phillips had not driven in at least 100 runs with those guys setting the table then something would have been really wrong.
So while many might salivate at the chance of acquiring an “All-Star Gold Glove Second Baseman with 100+ RBI,” the reality is that Brandon Phillips is a soon-to-be-33-year-old middle-infielder in a state of decline with four years and $50 million left on his contract. If you can ignore the trophies and hype, at the end of the day, in 2013 he posted a line of just .261/.310/.396 which compares unfavorably to his lifetime line of .271/.320/.429. His 2013 OPS of .706 ranked 14th out of the 18 “Qualifying” second-baseman and wasn’t all that much higher than Mark Ellis’ dismal OPS of .674. Meanwhile, Phillips’ WAR has dropped from 5.6 in 2011 to 3.7 in 2012 to 2.6 in 2013 and his wOBA during those years has similarly dropped from .353 to .325 to .307. As far as defense goes, he has a lifetime UZR/150 of 8.4 which is generally in line with his past two seasons (which were 8.6 and 8.5), which is certainly steady and very good (compare it to Mark Ellis’ lifetime UZR/150 of 9.1). You could make a very good argument that Brandon Phillips is essentially just Mark Ellis with 15-20 HR pop in his bat – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – especially because he’d likely be a fundamentally reliable player with solid defense – but he’s probably not worth the assets you’d be trading for him, and really not worth $50 million through 2017.
*Average over last 8 seasons
So what about Andre Ethier? If the only quality outfielders the Dodgers had were Ethier, Kemp, Puig and Crawford then I would be very much opposed to trading Ethier. There are so many question marks surrounding the health and durability of Crawford and Kemp that I wouldn’t be surprised if both of them managed to play only 110-120 games. There is clearly enough room for all four of these outfielders to get all of the playing time they deserve. But those aren’t the Dodgers only four outfielders: Scott Van Slyke and his .807 OPS and 5.4% HR rate has proven that he’s ready to contribute as a fourth OF/platoon player, and Joc Pederson’s platoon line against RHP in Jacksonville was an amazing .316/.420/.609 with a whopping 6.8 HR% (just for context, Puig’s line at Jacksonville was .313/.383/.599 with very little platoon differential). Sure, Joc was essentially worthless batting against LHP, but if he’s ready to contribute against RHP (and has Van Slyke as a potential platoon mate), then he deserves a shot at the big club right now! Joc is not the kind of guy you trade. He’s the kind of guy who motivates teams to trade a veteran to give him a chance to play!
The Dodgers certainly don’t have room for six quality OF. Puig and Joc should be all but untouchable. Kemp’s trade value is probably at the lowest it will ever be under his current contract. Trading Crawford would require the Dodgers to eat an awful lot of money and would create somewhat of a speed void. Van Slyke’s not the kind of player to draw much value in the trade market. So that leaves Ethier as the odd-man-out. Which is fine, because Ethier should still carry significant trade value. His 2013 line was .272/.360/.423 down a bit from his lifetime line of .288/.362/.470 due mostly to a drop in his HR rate (2.5% in 2013 vs. his lifetime rate of 3.5%), but his line against RHP was an impressive .294/.394/.460. That’s real value, especially for a team like the Reds who currently project to start the dreadful Ryan Ludwick in LF. Plus, Ethier played CF well enough filling in for Kemp last year that he could and should be considered a viable CF candidate backup on most competitive teams.
So if the Dodgers are going to trade Ethier to the Reds, who should they get in return? The way I see it, there are two scenarios that could be mutually beneficial – one without Brandon Phillips and one with Brandon Phillips.
If the Dodgers are content to let Alex Guerrero and/or Dee Gordon play 2B that removes Brandon Phillips from the discussion. The Reds don’t have any other MLB talent that obviously fills any known gaps on the Dodgers MLB roster, so that would mean that the Dodgers would have to be content with a couple of prospects. The Dodgers minor league system is still quite lean at Catcher and the Outfield. So, this writer would recommend trading Andre Ethier for two players: Phil Ervin and Tucker Barnhart. Ervin is a 20-year-old power-speed OF who posted a line of .331/.425/.564 with 9 HR and 14 SB (and only 1 CS) in 200 PA split between Billings (Pioneer League) and Dayton (Midwest League) in his first professional season. Barnhart is 23 and is generally regarded as a plus defensive catcher with good plate discipline (he posted a line of .260/.348/.348 in Pensacola in the Southern League). He may or may not ripen in to a bona fide MLB catcher, but he would give the Dodgers much-needed quality depth at the position.
Of course, all of this analysis and speculation does not take into account how any of the players in question may perform this Spring. If Kemp can’t run or play CF, the Dodgers are unlikely to trade Ethier. If Alex Guerrero and/or Dee Gordon set Arizona on fire, the Dodgers may not see the need to acquire Phillips. But if Kemp seems reasonably healthy and the Dodgers brain trust becomes nervous about trying to win the World Series with Alex Guerrero and/or Dee Gordon playing 2B, then Brandon Phillips might certainly become part of a deal that sends Ethier to the Reds. But the Dodgers should not trade Ethier without getting one or two top prospects in return because, for the reasons I’ve stated, Phillips is barely an upgrade from Ellis and I believe that there is a reasonable chance that Guerrero (and/or Gordon) might actually out-perform Phillips in 2014 and beyond. There’s no way that the Reds would trade Ethier straight up for Phillips plus two highly-rated prospects while simultaneously creating a void at 2B, so the Dodgers would probably have to put Gordon plus one of our talented-but-surplus pitchers into the package. Perhaps Beckett would be a good fit if he’s healthy. Otherwise, Withrow might make the most sense since his value is high but his peripherals suggest that he’s likely ripe for a regression. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
Just for fun, here are my recommended trade options in chart form:
|Dodgers trade||Reds trade||Dodgers 2014 2B|
|Option #1||Andre Ethier, OF||Phil Ervin, OF Tucker Barnhart, C||Alex Guerreroand/or Dee Gordon|
|Option #2||Andre Ethier, OF Dee Gordon, 2B/CF Chris Withrow (or Josh Beckettt), P||Brandon Phillips, 2B Phil Ervin, OF Tucker Barnhart, C||Brandon Phillips|
 It’s kind of fun to notice that Phillips’ 2013 batting average and OBP are only 5 points and 9 points higher than Dee Gordon’s career average and OBP (respectively) covering about the same number of PA. And if SB and CS were +/- components of SLG, Dee’s would be .388 compared to .399 for Phillips.