A big hit in fresh start
By Stephanie Storm
Beacon Journal sportswriter
It wasn't supposed to work this way.
When Indians General Manager Mark Shapiro traded ace pitcher and future Cy Young Award winner Bartolo Colon to the Montreal Expos in June 2002 for three youngsters, the main player targeted by Shapiro wasn't supposed to find success elsewhere.
Brandon Phillips was the cornerstone of the trade that also brought the Indians center fielder Grady Sizemore and left-handed pitcher Cliff Lee. The flashy infielder was the main reason Indians fans were told the team would be contending again soon.
After 3 ½ seasons with the Tribe, Phillips never panned out.
When the Cincinnati Reds begin a weekend series tonight at Jacobs Field, Tribe fans will get an up-close view of a Phillips they didn't see: a maturing, 24-year-old who leads the Reds' regulars with a .314 batting average. He has 12 doubles, seven home runs, 14 stolen bases, 34 runs scored and 43 RBI.
Out of minor-league options entering this season, Phillips was designated for assignment April 1. The Indians had 10 days to trade him or get nothing in return.
Nearly a week passed before the Reds' rookie general manager, Wayne Krivsky, decided to take a chance.
``They were the only team interested in him,'' Shapiro said. ``Trust me; we had more interest in Brandon Phillips than anyone. There was definitely some difference of opinion on the staff as to what we should do.''
After winning 93 games last year, the Indians came into 2006 with a set infield lineup. There was a healthy Aaron Boone at third base, young Jhonny Peralta at shortstop and veteran Ronnie Belliard at second.
Phillips could still make the team, but it would be as a utility infielder -- a role few thought he would handle well.
``The role we had open was a bench role,'' Shapiro said. ``We wanted a guy who could accept that.''
After some internal debate, the Indians opted to go with Ramon Vazquez. Phillips went to the Reds for what eventually became a minor-league pitcher.
``In baseball, we don't have the luxury of playing revisionist history,'' Shapiro said. ``From a timing standpoint, it just didn't work out for us.''
By the time Phillips made adjustments with his swing and his attitude, he was suiting up for another team.
In 2002, Baseball America named Phillips the Expos' top prospect and the 20th best player in minor-league baseball. For the remainder of that season, the Indians nurtured him at Triple-A Buffalo, where he hit .283 in 55 games and earned a September call-up.
Phillips was handed the second-base job to start the 2003 season as the team began to rebuild with youth.
Then came a walk-off home run.
At first, the memorable three-run homer that gave the Tribe a 6-4 victory over the Detroit Tigers at Jacobs Field appeared to be the hit that signaled Phillips' arrival in the big leagues. Phillips, though, apparently became enamored with the thought of becoming a long-ball hitter and lost his way at the plate. He hit .210 in 88 games -- the lowest average among regular American League batters in '03 -- and was demoted to Triple-A.
While Phillips played in Buffalo, Indians executives thought he wasn't a willing pupil in working on his game.
In 2005, Phillips was called up -- not to play but to work one on one with new Tribe hitting coach Derek Shelton -- but he never demonstrated a swing built for average instead of power.
Phillips' role was uncertain when he joined the Reds -- they had three players who could play second base in veterans Rich Aurilia, Tony Womack and Ryan Freel.
It has worked out well for Phillips so far.
``It wasn't too long ago that Brandon Phillips was one of the best prospects in baseball,'' Reds second-year manager Jerry Narron told reporters after the trade. ``If you have a chance to get that type of player, you take a chance.''
While Phillips wasn't handed an everyday role, he has played his way into one. With the way the Indians' season has gone, perhaps he could have done the same with the Tribe.
His first start with the Reds came April 13, and he began to see regular playing time three days later. He played in 20-of-21 games -- a dominating stretch that included an effort against the Milwaukee Brewers in which Phillips hit two home runs, including a grand slam, and drove in six.
From April 17-23, he earned the National League Player of the Week honor for batting .452 with four doubles, three home runs and 17 RBI.
``He has a world of talent,'' Narron said recently in the Reds Report. ``It was a matter of giving him an opportunity.''
Two weeks ago, the Indians completed the Phillips deal by receiving Class A pitcher Jeff Stevens. Stevens, a right-hander, was 2-4 with a 4.43 ERA in 14 games (six starts) at Dayton of the Midwest League.
Now at low Class-A Lake County, Stevens has a 14.73 ERA in two games (one start). In 3 2/3 innings, he has allowed seven runs (six earned).