Before I get started, understand that Brett Phillips and Lorenzo Cain are fairly different players. One is right-handed, one bats left. Their playing styles are different. They come from different baseball backgrounds. The PLAYERS are different, but I think we’ll find that their stories are similar.
There’s a really popular sentiment that I’m seeing on social media that Brett Phillips can’t hit enough in the big leagues to be an every day outfielder. Being of the opinion that Brett Phillips won’t be an All-Star hitter is perfectly understandable. Even if you don’t think he’ll be really good. But just saying, “He WILL NOT be a major league hitter,” at this stage in his career, is just silly.
There is NO WAY that you can know that. There is no way that you can know he’ll be a good hitter, either, by the way. Simply writing him off at the age of 24 is irresponsible. Let’s take a quick look at Lorenzo Cain and where he was as a prospect when the Royals traded for him.
- Age – 24
- In 43 MLB games
- 158 PA, .306/.348/.415/.763, 1 HR, 7 SB, 107 wRC+, 5.7% BB%, 17.7% K%
- Hit well in the minors after struggling in 2009
- Defensive minded player with some contact issues
- Age – 24
- In 53 MLB games (1 with KC)
- 125 PA, .252/.331/.405/.736, 4 HR, 5 SB, 90 wRC+, 8.8% BB%, 36.8% K%
- Raked in AAA in 2017, struggled a bit this year, though he was yanked around a lot between majors and minors
- 70-grade arm, good speed, good defender, good pop, contact issues
Obviously they have their differences. Phillips has had a much bigger contact issue than Cain has so far in his big league career, but it should be noted that most of his struggles in the big leagues have come in 2018. In 2017, Phillips posted a 104 wRC+ in 37 big league games when he got consistent playing time. He’s a better hitter than he’s shown in 2018 and could benefit from stability.
There are some clear differences between Phillips and Cain. Let’s break them down really quick:
- Cain was more of a contact hitter, Phillips is more of a power hitter
- Cain is faster and plays better defense, Phillips’ arm is 10x better than Cain’s
- Phillips both walks and strikeouts much more than Cain
Okay, they’re different. I get it. You get it. Yeah? Good.
Here’s my main point in all of this:
When the Kansas City Royals traded for Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar before the 2011 season, Alcides Escobar was thought to be the prize return. Fast forward seven off-seasons and Lorenzo Cain is the one with an $80M contract. He also leads the NL in bWAR and has the 7th highest defensive rating in baseball among qualified players (FanGraphs). The point is, Cain was a late bloomer who is now competing for the MVP of the National League.
Players develop at their own pace. Whit Merrifield didn’t make his MLB debut until the age of 27 and is now tied for 28th among all position players in fWAR this season. Jorge Soler took a while to get going but he was far and away the Royals best hitter in the first half. Brett Phillips just turned 24 years old. He was a consensus top 100 prospect in baseball before this season started. Remember when people freaked out about Mondesi’s big league struggles before he was ready? Mondesi now has a .746 OPS in the big leagues this season, and an .862 OPS/132 wRC+ in 69 PA since the Milwaukee series on June 26th.
Brett Phillips is an incredibly gifted athlete with plenty of tools and an impressive makeup. Just like Lorenzo Cain when he came to the Royals in 2011. Brett Phillips may turn out to be a nice defensive player and a 4th outfielder at best. He also may wind up being an All-Star. Both turnouts are possible, but it’s impossible to tell right now. Having an opinion on which one of those things is more likely is totally fine, but don’t let anyone tell you that Brett Phillips will never hit in the bigs. Lorenzo Cain has $80M reasons that you shouldn’t count him out yet.