KANSAS CITY -- When the Royals acquired speedy outfielder Brett Phillips from Milwaukee in the Mike Moustakas trade last July, Phillips immediately showed he could be a Royals-type defender, making numerous brilliant defensive plays in center field and right field.
And despite a disappointing offensive showing in Kansas City -- a .188 average and .565 OPS in 36 games -- Phillips appeared in line to compete for the center field job this spring.
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That all changed at the Winter Meetings, when the Royals signed former Red outfielder Billy Hamilton, a blazer who, over one four-year period, averaged 57 steals per season and a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder.
But if you think that transaction got Phillips down, you don't understand his past. He was in the same position prior to last Spring Training, on the eve of Brewers' camp.
"That's a great signing for the Kansas City Royals, getting Billy Hamilton," Phillips said. "I'm really in the same situation I was in last year. Not taking anything away from Billy, but I had Lorenzo Cain, and Christian Yelich and Ryan Braun [to contend with] last year in Milwaukee. That had been set in stone. There was no chance I was going to make that roster out of Spring Training.
"So for me, it's just a matter of going to Spring Training and just working hard and showing the Kansas City Royals what I did not show them at the end of last year. I want to show them I can help this team win. Last year was a bad season for me. I showed the Royals I can play a little defense and save some runs, but the Royals are expecting players who are the full package that can produce offensively and defensively. And the reality is, I didn't prove that offensively. Now I go to Spring Training and I'm competing for a job. That's how it plays out."
The Royals and general manager Dayton Moore have made it clear that in 2019 they will focus on being an elite team defensively and in terms of speed, returning to the formula that helped them get to back-to-back World Series in 2014 and '15. That would appear to give Phillips an edge, although as he competes for the right-field job with Jorge Soler, Jorge Bonifacio and Brian Goodwin, Phillips is aware he has to show the Royals he is capable of doing something, anything, offensively.
"There's this term I always go by and it's, 'If you hit, you don't sit," Phillips said.
Phillips, 24, should be one of the more intriguing figures in camp. In 2017, in a 36-game callup with the Brewers, he showed great potential, posting a .799 OPS with five steals and four home runs. And, of course, he dazzled in the field.
But frankly, there were times last season with the Royals that Phillips looked overmatched. He struck out 50 times in 123 plate appearances, and 21 of those strikeouts were looking, a fact that startled coaches and club officials.
"I'm glad you said that," Phillips said. "I didn't know that [at the time]. It's something I'm going to focus more on, maybe being more aggressive with two strikes. Yeah, it's pitch recognition, too. It's focusing more. Quieting the outside noises and influences. It's just focus. When you're caught looking on strikeouts, it is focus. Who was it, Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky, who said you miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take? Well, you miss 100 percent of the baseballs you don't swing at. It's unacceptable to stand up there and let strike three go by without swinging at it."
So this offseason, Phillips has been busy tinkering with his swing mechanics and his approach.
"Making changes at this stage of your career, you don't make big changes," he said. "But it's little things like not making as big of a leg kick, kind of quieting the legs down. It's where my hands are. It's small adjustments.
"You look at video, and you go, 'Oh, that's what I did wrong,' or 'That's what I did right.' But my swing is my swing. I've been doing it that way since I was five years old. Still, this offseason, I've been working hard and changing a few things. The question is always going to be, 'How many times is he going to strike out today?' But that was last year. That's something I need to change going forward."
Phillips has one other mental adjustment to make: for once, he's not even close to being the fastest guy on his team.
"What am I, the 10th fastest guy now?" Phillips said, smiling. "I know that's the hot topic, that wow, this team will be fast. I like to think I'm kind of fast, too. But put me next to these guys and I'm kind of slow. But I think I can contribute to that speed in some way. I just have to prove I belong."