Copyright 1997 Adam Barnhart. All Rights Reserved. Fair use of this document.
One of the perpetual fantasies of most sports fans is to be suddenly anointed as the General Manager of some struggling club, at which point they'd trade two 3's and a 4 for someone's Ace and run away with the pennant. It's hardly grounded in reality, of course, but it doesn't prevent us from thinking we could right the personnel-related wrongs our favorite team has inflicted on us over a period of years.
Ten (or perhaps twelve) years ago, in these sorts of discussions, my first move was invariably "get Phil Bradley." He's no Hall of Famer, to be sure, and never really played at that level, but he was consistently among the most productive players in the game during the meat in his career and never seemed to get a word written about him. The biggest problem any Rickey-free team tends to suffer from, though, is having a guy at the top of the order to get on base in front of the big guns. Phil Bradley, during the late-80's, was as good a leadoff type as anyone short of Rickey and Raines, and never seemed to get his due (indeed, he rarely batted leadoff -- most managers were unable to resist using Harold Reynolds or somebody in the leadoff hole), which, to my way of thinking, made him the most underrated player in the game during that time, if Darrell Evans wasn't.
When playing this game now, my first move is even easier than it was in 1987. Phil Bradley was probably the third-best leadoff man of the late-80's, pairing the great OBP with an impressive combination of speed and power. The third-best leadoff man now in the game (behind Rickey and Lofton) is a slight variation of Bradley's offensive skills, not quite hitting for the same average or stealing bases quite to efficiently, but drawing a tremendous number of walks and hitting for a little more power. To boot, the third-best leadoff hitter in today's game can play anywhere on the field, save being a part of the battery, which makes him even more valuable than Bradley. Need a third baseman? A second baseman? A right fielder? A part-time third baseman/second baseman/right fielder?
Tony Phillips is, of course, your man. Phillips has been recognized as a good player for several years now, tracing back to when he became Detroit's jack-of-all-trades. He's certainly higher in profile, having played for a few decent teams in some larger markets, a fate which eluded Bradley (isn't it amazing that Philadelphia, of all places, is considered a "small market" in today's sports landscape?). But Phillips is a legitimately great player. He's a better player than any number of people you hear raved about all the time -- Dante Bichette, Omar Vizquel, and Marquis Grissom are nowhere near as valuable as Phillips is. With an OBP in the .400's, he's on base all the time. We're not talking about an empty .400+ OBP, either, as he's been able to post slugging percentages in the upper .400's and has, despite some of the distress that's seemed to surround him, been able to lift his level of play well into his 30's.
Why the Angels were able to reacquire the sparkplug of one of the most successful offensive campaigns in team history is obvious. The White Sox simply didn't want him. The hyperactivity he's associated with has manifested itself in fights with fans, accusations of racism levelled at the league president, and general conflict with manager Terry Bevington. Whether this is Dick Allen-type stuff or lower-level conflict isn't clear at this point. Phillips has always had a reputation for being a vocal presence in the clubhouse and one wonders if there was a problem with Bevington simply being able to assert his authority. Dick Williams did about the same thing with Phil Bradley after the '87 season, after which Bradley didn't seem like quite the same player. For better or worse, one gets the impression that both the Sox' and Angels' fortunes are headed for some kind of significant change. If I had to pick one of the teams as a potential division winner at this point, I'd go with the Angels.