Because they have had so many pitcher injuries, it was a bit of a surprise to see the Rays make a trade for an outfielder, let alone one who hasn’t been able to crack the starting lineup on a last place Royals team. But today, the Royals sent Brett Phillips to the Rays for prospect Lucius Fox.
It’s hard to say what Phillips will bring because he hasn’t been given much of a chance to do anything in Kansas City. Only twice this month has he gotten more than two plate appearances in a game, leaving us with an insufficient 2020 sample to evaluate him. He has historically struggled to make consistent contact in games but plays the outfield well and has elite arm strength. He appears to have slightly altered his swing this year, changing where his hands begin and how early his leg kick starts, but because he has barely played I don’t know if this has made a difference on the contact end of things. I still have him as a fifth outfielder type.
Phillips is not an easy roster fit for Tampa Bay. He is on the 40-man, so this move does not help to clear the small 40-man crunch the Rays will deal with as the Rule 5 roster deadline approaches, and Phillips has no options left. He’ll be on an active roster with several other outfielders who run well and have big arms, Phillips’ two most notable traits.
But several of those other outfielders are not playing well, and neither is Ji-Man Choi, who may be a 40-man crunch casualty this winter. Phillips perhaps gives the Rays an extra chance of catching lightning in a bottle if the switch never turns on for Choi, Yoshi Tsutsugo or Hunter Renfroe.
In Fox, I think Kansas City got a long-term utility piece who can play the outfield and middle infield. Here’s a relevant excerpt from his most recent prospect report, which still holds water:
…posted an above-average offensive line for each of the last three affiliates at which he’s spent most of the season. That includes a 104 wRC+ in a depressed 2019 Southern League, where the average hitter’s line was .243/.318/.366. Despite major league-average exit velocities, Fox’s contact quality isn’t great, and he has an OBP-driven offensive profile thanks to his keen eye for the zone.
He’d need to be a plus shortstop defender to profile as a low-end regular, and while he has looked like it at times, it hasn’t been consistent, and the Rays began moving him all over the infield late last year. As a switch-hitter who’s better from the right side (his numbers have been much better as a righty bat the last couple years), I think Fox will play some sort of multi-positional, shorter half of a platoon role while also pinch running. If you think he’s a low-end regular at short, then he’s a 45 FV, but I think it’ll be hard for him to be more than a 1-WAR role player without any impact in the bat.
If I’m going to supplement this, it’d first be to say that a source with a team that has opted into the league’s campsite data-sharing agreement told me there are no signs that Fox has changed based on the data generated there. Second, I’d add that I’m not sure Fox’s eye for the zone will matter as much against big league pitching because he lacks power. And finally I’ll reiterate that there are very disparate opinions regarding Fox’s defense. I’ve seen him do some spectacular things at shortstop and also seen him boot easy plays. I tend to think he ends up playing the middle infield occasionally, but players this fast (Fox is at least a plus runner) often end up in center field. I like him as a switch-hitting up-the-middle bench player whose wheels will occasionally come in handy.
Note that twice now in the last several weeks, Kansas City has scooped up a toolsy, post-hype player who had been squeezed out of the roster picture with a contending club, the other being Franchy Cordero. We’ve seen San Francisco, Baltimore and Toronto target a similar sort of player with frequency and occasionally find a long-term piece by giving big time physical talents an extended opportunity. Fox is now ranked among Royals prospects over on The Board.