Let’s admit Brandon Phillips has been a revelation at third base

 

DENVER – Brandon Phillips hasn’t been a serviceable third baseman since he was asked at the beginning of the month to move to that position, which he had played for one game in Double-A in 2001 and never since. He’s not been serviceable; he’s been far more than that.

Brandon Phillips remains at good hitter at age 36, and this month he’s shown he’s made a seamless transition to third base after a career as a four-time Gold Glove second baseman. (Getty Images)

In fact, everyone I’ve talked to about it seems to be in agreement that he’s been a damn good defensive third baseman for these past 12 Braves games since making the move he wasn’t thrilled about making, but had little choice in the matter once the Braves decided to call up second-base prospect Ozzie Albies. It was either play third base or don’t play, since the Braves made it clear to Phillips that they wanted to, needed to and were going to get a good look at Albies.

So Phillips, a 36-year-old former four-time Gold Glove-winning, three-time All-Star second baseman thought about it briefly, told manager Brian Snitker he’d do it, and worked out at third base before batting practice the next day (Aug. 2) before starting that night’s game at a position he’d not played in a game of any kind in 16 years. And he handled the position flawlessly from the jump, because Phillips might be relatively old by baseball standards, but the dude – Dat Dude – is still in great shape despite some aches and pains, and more important because he retains some seriously strong skills and sharp reflexes.

What Brandon himself thinks about the initial move to third base and subsequent results isn’t clear, as he’s thus far declined to discuss anything third-base related. And that’s certainly his prerogative. If his pride was initially hurt or he was just ticked off at being asked to move, who can blame him? Even if it was made clear by the Braves – at least to us, and through us to the public – the Braves said all along after trading for Phillips just before spring training that when Albies was ready, he would not be blocked by Phillips. And even though Phillips surpassed most expectations this season at the plate, when the Braves decided it was time to look at Albies the rest of the season to plan for next season, they did it.

That doesn’t mean Phillips, who was raised in metro Atlanta (Stone Mountain) and has really enjoyed playing at home in front of friends and family this season, had to agree or like the decision to have Albies supplant him.

But he made the move, and he’s excelled at third base. In fact, I’ll say publicly what I mentioned to someone in the press box last night: At this stage of his career, I think Phillips is a better third baseman than second baseman. Really.

And if Phillips thinks about it, which I’m sure he probably has now that it’s been a couple of weeks since the move, him playing third base and showing he can play it well is the best thing that could’ve happened to him going forward if he wants to continue playing, which he does. I mean, think about it: How many teams would be looking to sign a 36-year-old free agent who plays second base and second base alone? And who’s had some nagging injuries and isn’t the top-of-the-charts defender he once was at the position?

Not many teams, if any, would’ve been interested in signing him to anything more than perhaps a one-year, low-salary deal, if a guaranteed deal at all.

But if teams believe he can play both second base and third base? Well, Phillips could get interest as a legit backup and a guy who could start at either of two positions for an extended period if a team had an injury.

Bench players need to play more than one position these days unless they really have a particular tool that makes them exceptional enough to spend a 25-man roster spot on despite the lack of defensive flexibility. If they’re a big-time power hitter, for instance, then some teams are willing to carry such a player for the home-run threat off the bench. But for a guy like Phillips, being able to play a couple of infield positions instead of just one might mean the difference in getting some degree of free-agent interest. Who knows, maybe even the Braves might want to consider keeping him. Crazier things have happened (like, for instance, asking a 36-year-old second baseman to move to third base in the middle of a season).

And if he can play third – which he’s shown he clearly can, and play it well – then teams will probably assume he can play a sound first base, too.

Phillips got a big welcome back when the Braves played this season at Cincinnati, where he spent 11 seasons before he was traded to Atlanta just before spring training. (AP photo)

As he showed again in Tuesday night’s game, Phillips can handle line drives as well as just about anyone; the reflexes appear undiminished. And where his range wasn’t what it once was at second base, that’s not really an issue at third, where fielding most of the balls he gets there is a matter of a quick first step to get to a grounder or lightning-fast reaction to snare a liner. It’s not called the hot corner for nothing, ya know?

As for his arm, it’s not going to get rated high on any scouting scale at this stage of his career, but Phillips has shown on several occasions that he’s got more than enough left to make the throws he needs to make from third base. As Snitker said last night after Phillips fielded a Trevor Story grounder and threw him out for the final out of the Braves’ 4-3 win over the Rockies, Phillips has a little more he can reach back and get when he needs to make a strong throw.

When the Braves called up Albies unexpectedly Aug. 1 and Snitker told us that day that he’d asked Phillips to play third base, my immediate reaction was, no way. Move makes no sense, and there’s no way Phillips would agree to do it, I thought.

I was wrong on both counts. Entirely wrong. And each game has been a reminder that Brandon Phillips is a ballplayer in every sense, a guy who had some great natural skills and instincts to play this game at a high level, and who honed those over decades to such a degree that moving across the diamond isn’t nearly as difficult for him as it would be for 99.9 percent of the folks on this planet.

Well done, Mr. Phillips.

• I would close this with one of BP’s walk-up songs, Fetty Wap’s “My Way,” but the lyrics, well, might be deemed unsuitable for the family newspaper, and I might get in trouble. So I’ll go with this rockin’ song from DBT about another Mr. Phillips, especially since this is the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death and Elvis and the other Sun Records guys are what this song’s about.

“CARL PERKINS’ CADILLAC” by Drive-By Truckers

Drive-By Truckers

Life ain’t nothing but a blending up of all the ups and downs
Dammit Elvis, don’t you know
You made your Mama so proud
Before you ever made that record, before there ever was a Sun
Before you ever lost that Cadillac that Carl Perkins wonMr. Phillips found old Johnny Cash and he was high
High before he ever took those pills and he’s still too proud to die
Mr. Phillips never said anything behind nobody’s back
Like “Dammit Elvis, don’t he know, he ain’t no Johnny Cash”

If Mr. Phillips was the only man that Jerry Lee still would call sir
Then I guess Mr. Phillips did all of y’all about as good as you deserve
He did just what he said he was gonna do and the money came in sacks
New contracts and Carl Perkins’ Cadillac

I got friends in Nashville, or at least they’re folks I know
Nashville is where you go to see if what they said is so
Carl drove his brand new Cadillac to Nashville and he went downtown
This time they promised him a Grammy
He turned his Cadillac around

Mr. Phillips never blew enough hot air to need a little gold-plated paperweight
He promised him a Cadillac and put the wind in Carl’s face
He did just what he said he was gonna do and the money came in sacks
New contracts and Carl Perkins’ Cadillac

Dammit Elvis, I swear son I think it’s time you came around
Making money you can’t spend ain’t what being dead’s about
You gave me all but one good reason not to do all the things you did
Now Cadillacs are fiberglass, if you were me you’d call it quits

 


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