Brandon Phillips Gets Paid

I’m not exactly certain when Cincinnati became the Monte Carlo of the Mid East, but judging by the spending of its baseball team, the phenomenon occurred at some point last month. Following closely on the heels of the ten year contract extension worth $225 million given to first baseman Joey Votto, the Cincinnati Reds today signed Brandon Phillips to a staggering six year extension that will pay the second baseman $72.5 million.

The new terms replace the contract Phillips had in place for this season, his final before free agent eligibility, meaning that the Reds have locked up the 30 year old through 2017, when he’ll be 36 years old. The $12.1 million average annual value makes Phillips the fourth highest paid second baseman in baseball, behind Ian Kinsler, Dan Uggla and Chase Utley.

As we preface all references to dollars per WAR, in a vacuum, the deal appears questionable. Paying Phillips this amount for this long anticipates him being worth approximately 13 wins above replacement over the life of the contract. Assuming the standard $5 million/ WAR, 5% inflation, and a 0.5 WAR decline each year, this is how the contract works out for the team:

2012 – $12.08 million salary – $5.00 $/WAR – Paying for 2.4 WAR – Anticipating 3.4 WAR
2013 – $12.08 million salary - $5.25 $/WAR – Paying for 2.3 WAR – Anticipating 2.9 WAR
2014 – $12.08 million salary - $5.51 $/WAR – Paying for 2.2 WAR – Anticipating 2.4 WAR
2015 – $12.08 million salary - $5.79 $/WAR – Paying for 2.1 WAR – Anticipating 1.9 WAR
2016 – $12.08 million salary - $6.08 $/WAR – Paying for 2.0 WAR – Anticipating 1.4 WAR
2017 – $12.08 million salary - $6.31 $/WAR – Paying for 1.9 WAR – Anticipating 0.9 WAR

The deal anticipates that Brandon Phillips is a 3.4 WAR player as it stands right now. If we look at his last three seasons, his age 28-30 years, to get a sense of his true talent, we see:

  • 13.7 fWAR according to FanGraphs;
  • 9.0 rWAR according to Baseball Reference; and
  • 8.3 WARP according to Baseball Prospectus.

In other words, FanGraphs values the deal to be worth it for the Reds, while both Baseball Reference and Baseball Prospectus lean toward not so much. Each of the three websites use different metrics to measure defense, and UZR, which FanGraphs uses, rates Phillips much higher than any other metric.

Dave Cameron of FanGraphs, in his analysis of the recent Kinsler extension, suggested that second basemen tend to age worse than other position players. While the aging curve is steep, it doesn’t appear to be more drastic than the half win we’d expect for all players after the age of 30.

For the Reds, the deal means that they’ll have the core that they employ right now for a long time. While I assume that Cincinnati thinks that will be a good thing not only for the next few years, but also a television deal in the near future, it does have the potential to critically limit roster movement past the next couple of seasons.

No team would especially look forward to having $35 million of its annual payroll locked up in two players in their mid thirties for multiple years. These two contracts guarantee this will happen in Cincinnati. Given their market size, the prospect of this has to be especially nerve wracking. Last season, the team’s payroll was just over $80 million, and this year, it’s approaching $90 million.

The amount of money committed to Votto and Phillips on a payroll of that size is simply too limiting for my taste. With the Phillips contract added to next year’s commitments, the team’s payroll is already approaching its total amount this season without even accounting for arbitration eligible players.

As other team’s in the league seem to be focused on creating a system of sustained success, the Reds appear to be cycling to peak in the near future at the expense of its long term validity in the National League Central division.