Despite the new August 31 date and all the uncertainty about how player movement would be impacted by the circumstances of the pandemic-shortened season, the lead-up to the 2020 trade deadline went more or less the same as deadlines past. Some big names switched uniforms, non-contenders looked to dump salary and add prospects, and just about as always, one unheralded trade ended up paying big dividends in October.
On August 27, the Rays made a move to shore up their bench depth by acquiring Brett Phillips from the Royals in exchange for infield prospect Lucius Fox. It was one of several seemingly minor swaps Tampa Bay made prior to the August 31 deadline, and while the Rays were already coasting towards a postseason spot by that point, the argument could have been made that a bigger move was necessary to boost their chances at a championship.
Little did we know, the Phillips trade was that move. Phillips’ ninth-inning RBI single last night started a wild, game-deciding sequence and an 8-7 comeback victory for Tampa in Game 4 of the World Series. After entering the game as a pinch-runner in the previous inning, Phillips’ first plate appearance since October 7 resulted in his entry into instant legend status in Rays history.
Not bad for a player who was primarily seen as a defensive and pinch-running specialist at the time of his acquisition. In fact, it’s not bad for a 26-year-old player playing for his fourth different organization, which is perhaps why Phillips was such an unlikely candidate to deliver the Rays’ biggest hit.
Originally a sixth-round pick for the Astros in the 2012 draft, Phillips began to turn heads after a very impressive 2014 season at the A-ball and high-A levels. He continued to produce into 2015, and while this breakout might have made him into a building block for the rebuilding Astros if it had happened a bit earlier in Phillips’ career, by 2015 the Astros were looking to win. As such, Houston made a major trade deadline swap with the Brewers that sent Phillips, Josh Hader, Domingo Santana, and Adrian Houser to Milwaukee in exchange for Carlos Gomez, Mike Fiers, and $287,500 in international bonus pool money.
The Astros went on to reach the postseason that year, falling to the Royals in the ALDS, yet the aftershocks of this trade continue to reverberate around baseball. Gomez ended up being something of a disappointment for Houston that year, though Fiers went on to become a solid member of the Astros’ rotation through their 2017 World Series-winning season and then…well, you know the rest. On Milwaukee’s end of the deal, Hader developed into one of the game’s best relief aces, Hauser has emerged as an intriguing starter, and Santana delivered some solid production over 351 games for the Brew Crew before he was traded to the Mariners in the 2018-19 offseason.
The one weak link of the Brewers’ trade return, however, was Phillips. There was no doubt that Phillips had MLB-caliber speed and glovework, except after a promising .799 OPS over 98 plate appearances in 2017, he struggled badly the next season and found himself on the move again.
This time, Phillips was headed to Kansas City (along with right-hander Jorge Lopez) in another deadline deal, as Milwaukee picked up Mike Moustakas for the pennant race. The Moose was a key part of a Brewers team that came within a game of the 2018 NL pennant, and the Brew Crew reached the playoffs again in 2019 thanks in large part to Moustakas’ All-Star season. For Phillips, he found himself on another rebuilding team with another opportunity at a fresh start, yet he again couldn’t capitalize — Phillips hit .178/.256/.308 over 236 PA spanning three seasons with the Royals.
As a player who relied on doubles and triples rather than homers, Phillips wasn’t quite a “three true outcomes” player in the minors, though he used a keen batting eye to counter-act his strikeouts and generate a career .274/.362/.478 slash line over 3174 PA. The problem is, Major League pitchers have feasted on those holes in Phillips’ swing, as he has struck out 133 times in his 383 plate appearances at the big league level.
Phillips’ trade history is indicative of his declining prospect stock, as he went from a headline piece of a blockbuster deal to last August’s swap that didn’t generate many headlines. Not many headlines, that is, until last night. While Phillips’ first two trades carried so much import for other teams and players involved, it wasn’t until his third time changing uniforms that Phillips himself now stands as the most important part of a trade. Phillips is still only 26, and given the Rays’ penchant for finding hidden gems, perhaps last night’s heroics will only raise the curtain on a big second act of Phillips’ Major League career.