Phillips relies on his versatility
Ability to play three infield spots, outfield helps roster chance
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Andy Phillips realized early on that versatility would be a key to him having a chance at career longevity.That could serve him well as he fights for a spot on the Cincinnati bench. Phillips is one of three Reds in camp to have played every game this spring, and he's rarely in the same position two days in a row. "If he's going to make this club, it's in his best interests to be versatile," manager Dusty Baker said. "We're pretty deep at first, pretty deep in the outfield. There's not a whole bunch of spots for him to play out there." The 30-year-old Phillips has played first base, second base, third base and the outfield at various points in camp. Most of his big league career was spent at first base with the Yankees, however. "I've played everywhere," Phillips said. "I came up as a third baseman, then moved to second base and played there a few years. I moved to first and played some in the outfield." Phillips keeps four gloves handy for games -- one for each position. "I'm not that far removed from the other infield positions, because I played a good deal of second last year," he said. "The outfield is the one I hadn't played a lot recently, but I feel pretty comfortable." Proving that he's comfortable and capable throughout this month will be pivotal. Cincinnati has no shortage of candidates vying for utility spots on the roster. With Jeff Keppinger likely to open the season as the starting shortstop in place of the injured Alex Gonzalez, the battle opened some more. Jolbert Cabrera, Jerry Hairston Jr. and Juan Castro are others seeking similar spots with Phillips, and Cabrera has been one of the club's hottest hitters in camp. The Reds need a right-handed first baseman, which could benefit Phillips because of his experience. "There are a couple of spots there that have pretty good competition," Baker said. "A lot depends on Gonzalez. His injury opened up a spot. I'm still weighing out the options. [Phillips] is in the mix, big time." Entering Thursday's game, Phillips was batting .259 (7-for-27) with five RBIs in 15 games.
Until this year, Phillips spent his entire pro career seeking to wear Yankees pinstripes. He was New York's seventh-round Draft pick in 1999, and he broke into the Majors with the Yankees in 2004.In 2007 he had his best season in the Majors, batting .292 with two home runs and 25 RBIs in 61 games. He played regularly at first base, especially after Doug Mientkiewicz missed extended time with an injury following a rough collision. However, Phillips was the odd man out after the season when the Yankees needed space on their 40-man roster. He rejected an outright assignment to the Minors and elected to be a free agent. The Reds signed him to a Minor League deal with a non-roster invite on Jan. 4. "It was a little surprising after the year I had last year," Phillips said of the Yankees' decision. "At the same time, you can never be caught too off guard in this game, because of the stuff that happened. It's a business." The surprise of being outrighted by the Yankees paled in comparison with the more personal shocks to Phillips' family over the past two years. Last year he missed two weeks of Spring Training when his mother was involved in a serious car accident. He couldn't make up the time in camp and started 2007 in Triple-A. Two years ago, Phillips' wife, Bethany, was diagnosed with a rare form of uterine cancer. They already knew about the disease when he got to Spring Training that season, but they learned just how it serious it was on Opening Day. "It ended up being a six-month ordeal, going through chemo and all that to take care of it, but she's doing extremely well now," Phillips said. "Trying to juggle playing baseball and going home on off-days was very tough. It tests your character a little bit. Looking back now, it's taught me a lot, and I've grown up a lot, which is good." Buoyed by both perspective and optimism, Phillips seemed to have a handle on the adversity and unexpected turns that come with fighting for one of the final roster spots on a Major League club. He's glad he's doing that this spring with the Reds. "I feel really good about this organization and the opportunity I've been given," he said. "I'm having a lot of fun over here."
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.