CINCINNATI -- Speculation about player moves is a cornerstone of every Hot Stove season. It always has been and always will be.
It's been many years, however, since rumors and conjecture have centered so hotly on an established Reds star, this one being second baseman Brandon Phillips.
Reds general manager Walt Jocketty denied reports last month that he was shopping Phillips. But in an interview with MLB.com, Jocketty stopped short of saying Phillips was a lock to be on the club in 2014.
"I'm not saying that," Jocketty said. "We've got some things we've got to look at on how we're going to improve our club. I'm not going to say nobody is untouchable."
Last week, CBSSports.com reported that the Yankees inquired about Phillips in case they can't re-sign big-ticket free agent Robinson Cano and that the Reds' asking price for Phillips was "way too steep." On Wednesday, Yahoo! quoted a Major League executive who, when asked about Phillips, said "he's gone" from Cincinnati.
How realistic is it that Phillips will be gone from Cincinnati come Spring Training 2014? Can trading a three-time All-Star and four-time National League Gold Glove Award winner help the team?
The answers to both questions might be found with a look at Phillips' contract, but that can also provide conflicting answers. Phillips signed a six-year, $72.5 million contract with the Reds in April 2012. There are four years and $50 million remaining on the deal. He is 32 years old.
Unless the Reds are willing to assume some of that money in trade negotiations, the size of the contract limits the teams with the ability -- or willingness -- to take it on. Among the large-market teams, the Yankees must first decide their path with Cano, who undoubtedly is in line for a lucrative contract. If Cano defects, Phillips certainly would become an attractive (and cheaper) option for New York.
If the Reds trade Phillips, it could free up payroll to help them compete in re-signing free-agent outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, lock up starting pitcher Homer Bailey long term or add some needed boost to the team's offense.
Statistically, Phillips had a less-than-stellar 2013 for the Reds. He notched a career-best 103 RBIs, but he also had the benefit of batting behind Choo and Joey Votto, who reached base a combined 616 times. Votto (.435) and Choo (.423) were first and second in the NL in on-base percentage.
Phillips hit 18 home runs for a fourth straight year, but the club has put in him in the cleanup spot, where that total is less than desired. The other traditional statistical metrics reveal his lowest numbers since joining the Reds in 2006. Phillips batted .261 with a .310 on-base percentage and a .396 slugging percentage in 151 games. His 98 strikeouts were his most since 2007.
One factor was that Phillips seemed adversely affected from being hit on the left forearm by a pitch on June 1. After missing four games, his numbers were down the rest of the season and never recovered.
On the sabermetric side, Phillips ranked 12th among Major League second basemen -- and fifth on the Reds -- with a 2.6 wins above replacement (WAR) figure, according to Fangraphs.com. The same website listed Phillips 14th at his position with a weighted runs created plus (wRC+) of 91, below the league average.
Comparatively, Cardinals second baseman Matt Carpenter led the league's second basemen with a 7.0 WAR and 147 wRC+ while making $504,000. Phillips was the fourth-highest-paid second baseman in the Majors at $10 million.
In 2011, the year before he signed his big contract, Phillips batted .300 with a .353 OBP, .457 slugging percentage, 5.6 WAR and 122 wRC+. As he moves past his baseball-playing prime, the Reds and his suitors must determine what might be his future production.
Defensively, it was another Gold Glove season. Phillips had a .987 fielding percentage, fifth-best in the NL, while his nine errors were the fifth fewest in the league, but his most since 2009. On the sabermetric side, Phillips was second among NL second basemen with an 8.6 ultimate zone rating (UZR), while the Cubs' Darwin Barney led the category at 12.5. The Dodgers' Mark Ellis led the position in defensive runs saved with 12, followed by Barney at 11. Phillips was fourth with one.
Outside the numbers, things are less cut and dry. Phillips is one of the Reds' most popular players with the fans -- both at the ballpark and in social media. He's never turned down opportunities to attend the team's winter caravan and often engages with fans off the field.
But there is also baggage that might give other clubs pause. In the August issue of Cincinnati Magazine, Phillips complained about his contract after Votto inked his 10-year, $225 million deal in April 2012. In a September moment caught on camera, Phillips verbally assaulted a Cincinnati newspaper reporter who had written about his low on-base percentage.
The Reds could have added motivation to move him. If he spends the 2014 season with Cincinnati, Phillips becomes a "10-and-5 player" -- 10 years of big league service with at least the past five with one club -- and would get no-trade protection.
If the Reds consider trading Phillips, it would be easy to question whether they could get fair value in return. That could be a sticking point for a club that doesn't want to go backward after making the postseason in three of the past four seasons. The Reds are a team that needs to add bats, not subtract them. If both Choo and Phillips are gone from the lineup in 2014 and not adequately replaced, Cincinnati could have issues contending in the NL Central.
The Reds have few choices in-house to replace Phillips. Henry Rodriguez has a decent switch-hitter, but his defense is less than acceptable for the Major Leagues. Speedy center fielder and top prospect Billy Hamilton, a shortstop until last year, would be a bold choice to play second base. Hamilton, the heir apparent for replacing Choo in center field and in the leadoff spot, could become a more logical fit at second base if Choo is re-signed.
On the free-agent market, Omar Infante is probably the second-best choice after Cano. Also available are Ellis, Skip Schumaker and Brian Roberts, but all three would be steps down from Phillips, especially offensively.
The question about trading Phillips brings a laundry list of pros and cons for the Reds front office. Don't expect any quick answers. There is a lot of offseason left -- about three months -- for the club to decide which path to take when it comes to their longtime second baseman.