LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — He was traded to the Braves just a couple of days before players began reporting to spring training, yet right away it seemed as if Brandon Phillips had always been part of the team, so seamless was the veteran second baseman’s transition to a new clubhouse.
“Well, when you’ve got a personality like that you can fit in anywhere,” said Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, whose locker stall is among those closest to Phillips’ stall in the spring-training clubhouse. “You’ve got a lot of guys here who just want to fit in and play the game the right way. He obviously does that. He does it with a lot of fun, so it just brings extra energy into our clubhouse that the clubhouse needs.”
Outgoing personality aside, it was still impressive for an outside observer to see how easily a guy who played the past 11 seasons with one team — the Cincinnati Reds — was able to develop or strengthen relationships with so many players, young and old, in new surroundings.
“I’m the type of person … I know that I adapt to my situations,” said Phillips, who was raised in the Atlanta area. “I feel like I’ve done that pretty good with these guys. I knew Freddie, Nick (Markakis) and (Matt) Kemp, and (R.A.) Dickey and (Bartolo) Colon — I’ve been playing against those guys for so many years, and then we got on the same team. That’s just much easier, just for me to come over here and be myself, try to fill in the gap, do what they want me to do.
“That’s the only thing I could really ask for.”
He’s done all the Braves have asked this spring, easing concerns after free-agent signee Sean Rodriguez’s shoulder surgery following a January automobile accident caused team officials to scramble to fill the second-base void. They got Phillips, a four-time former Gold Glove winner and three-time former All-Star, for a relatively puny price, trading two minor league pitchers to Cincinnati and getting the Reds to play $13 million of Phillips’ $14 million salary.
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Phillips hit over .290 each of the past two seasons, had 34 doubles and 11 home runs in 2016, and was 14-for-45 (.311) this spring with two doubles, one home run and only two strikeouts in 19 Grapefruit League games through Sunday.
Although he last won a Gold Glove in 2013 and isn’t considered the premier defensive second baseman he once was, Phillips has shown all spring that he can still make all the routine plays plus plenty of spectacular ones — behind-the-back flips are routine for him — that most players wouldn’t even attempt in games.
“He’s fun to watch,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I like to watch him take grounders in batting practice and when we do (infield drills) and stuff like that. He’s a good player. My God, he plays with a lot of energy, he’s dangerous, he’s tough as nails. I heard from the Cincinnati people, ‘there won’t be anybody on your team in better shape than this guy,’ and they were right. He’s been good.”
During a game against the Tigers last week, Phillips began a double play with one of his behind-the-back flips to shortstop Dansby Swanson. The rookie has looked comfortable working with Phillips despite not getting as much playing time together as they hoped this spring due to Swanson’s recent two-week absence for a side strain.
“Dansby’s got to be ready,” Snitker said, referring to Phillips’ penchant for no-look tosses, which the manager compared to Magic Johnson passes back in the day. “He isn’t going to be in any position and not get a ball going to him, obviously, after seeing that (behind-the-back toss). Be ready or get hit in the face.”
Phillips seemed to smile a majority of the time he was on the field in Cincinnati, even through some difficulties in recent years when the team struggled and some relationships became strained. But this spring, from the morning he reported and began doing extra infield drills immediately with new third-base coach Ron Washington, Phillips, at age 35, has seemed even more upbeat than usual.
“Coming over here and being wanted — it feels good to play for the home team,” he said. “I’m from here, I feel like I’ve been knowing this organization for a long time. Another thing, just seeing all the guys that I idolized growing up coming back (to help during spring training) — Dave Justice, Fred McGriff, Chipper Jones, all those guys. And the manager, he’s been very legit. I really love him to death. He let me be myself. When a manager can just say, ‘Brandon, just be yourself,’ you can’t really ask for more.”
The 15-year veteran has supplied positive energy from the day he reported up until these final days of a spring training that’s been longer than usual to accommodate the World Baseball Classic.
“I loved it,” Phillips said of his first Braves camp. “Just getting used to the new team, some of the guys. I felt like I knew these guys from playing against them for so many years. The only thing different is just a different name on the front of my jersey. I play for that name on my jersey, that’s why I’m going to represent the city the best way I know how. I’m just happy just to be playing this game, just to get a chance to play every day. Hopefully we can come up here and win.”
Phillips has played through a lot of bruises this spring, having been hit by more balls — he’s been hit by pitches, pick-off throws and fouled-off pitches — than he could ever remember in spring training. But it hasn’t slowed him and he hasn’t asked out of any game, insisting on playing a couple of times when the manager would’ve preferred he come out and apply some ice.
Barring anything unexpected in the final days of camp, he’ll enter the season healthy and feeling good about his game and place on the team.
“I’m very happy were I’m at,” he said. “I feel if I’m healthy I can be one of the best players in this game, and regardless of — people always talk about your age, age this, age that, but if I can go out there and still produce regardless of what they want me to do. … If I’m healthy I’ll put up some good numbers. But it’s not about what I can do, it’s all about what I can do for this team. I want to win.
“That’s another reason I came over here, I see the team that they put together that can win now, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity.”
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