The Cubs made a flurry of roster moves ahead of the series starting in St. Louis tonight. It began with Pedro Strop finally being placed on the IL. Duane Underwood is getting the call tonight to give Maddon the requisite number of arms for the game, but it very likely will be a very short stay on the big league roster. News broke a few hours later that the Cubs had acquired reliever David Phelps from the Toronto Blue Jays. The Cubs are sending Thomas Hatch to the Jays and have moved Xavier Cedeño to the 60 day IL.
The #Cubs today acquired RHP David Phelps and a cash consideration from the Toronto Blue Jays for minor league RHP Thomas Hatch.
To make room for Phelps on the 40-man roster, LHP Xavier Cedeño has been transferred to the 60-day IL. pic.twitter.com/7tsw2vYqED
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) July 30, 2019
The Cubs reworking of the bullpen continues with David Phelps being added to the backend of the bullpen. The 32 year old right hander has made just 17 appearances in 2019, and these are the first appearances made since his Tommy John Surgery in September 2017. Phelps unfortunately was the reminder that there is no such thing as routine surgery despite the prevalence of the procedure amongst pitchers, as it took him 21 months to return from the surgery.
Phelps is not a name that might excite, but he has been very effective since a shift to relieving full time. His career numbers are solid but not spectacular with a 3.88 ERA. Phelps began his career bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen prior to the Marlins moving him into relieving full time in 2016. Phelps career numbers as a reliever are encouraging with his career ERA nearly a run lower versus starting at 3.36 to 4.20. His strikeout jumps from 19% to 27%.
Phelps saw his velocity jump significantly in 2016 with the move to relieving. Phelps described this change in his career ahead of his first appearance this year.
“[I’ve had a] pretty unique career in the sense that for the first four years of my big league career I pitched at 88 to 92 [mph] and then the last two years before I got injured I pitched more 93 to 96, so I’ve proven to myself that I can get guys out both ways,” Phelps said. “Obviously a little bit more effective the harder you throw, but I’m just excited to be back out there and see what I’ve got to offer.”
The chart below shows the average velocity on his pitches throughout his career, and it matches up nicely with the changes he described going from a moderately effective swing starter to a successful high leverage reliever.
Phelps velocity has been trending slowly upwards since his return. His last appearance saw him give up 3 runs to bloat the ERA, but his average fastball velocity ticked above 93 mph for the first time in 2019. It isn’t a guarantee, but given that the Cubs had to make a decision in the next couple of days it is understandable that the Cubs see a pitcher on the rise. If the trend continues with Phelps getting back to his pre-TJS velocity the Cubs might have their high leverage reliever.
The Cubs flipped Thomas Hatch for the veteran right handed reliever. The cost might be surprising since the name is probably familiar to most Denizens. Michael Ernst wrote this as a brief summary about departed the Cubs farmhand, Thomas Hatch:
Heading into the 2017 draft the Cubs were in dire need of pitching prospects, but lacked 1st and 2nd round picks due to the signings of Jon Lester and Jason Heyward the previous offseason. It seemed fortuitous then when Thomas Hatch, coming off a strong College World Series performance for Oklahoma State was available with their 3rd round pick. Possessing a solid sinker and slider which flashed plus coming out of school, the Cubs added a changeup to his repertoire in 2017, then upped his four-seamer usage in 2018, in the hope Hatch could emerge as a legitimate starting pitcher prospect.
He holds his velocity well, and the changeup showed flashes of being a legitimate out at times. But Hatch stalled in AA the past year and a half as his command and control never advanced beyond fringy. His stuff was often good enough to become a back-of-the-rotation starter, but too often he would either walk too many opposing batters or leave too many pitches over the heart of the plate. It was beginning to look like a transition to the bullpen was in the making prior to this trade. Hatch is also set to become Rule 5 eligible in the offseason and it did not appear he would be in line to be protected on the 40-man roster.
The weird usage of Hatch the past few weeks makes some sense given the frequent connections between the Blue Jays and Cubs. There is no way to know if the talks earlier involved Ken Giles and his now barking elbow. Or perhaps the Cubs were interested in Eric Sogard, but couldn’t come up with the payroll space to add the veteran. Either way the cost seems appropriate for Phelps in a player that the Cubs might have lost anyway in the offseason. The Cubs dealt from a surplus of arms that they had to make a call on very soon.
Phelps should slot into the eighth inning role that Pedro Strop was going to fill. The Cubs have actually reworked the backend of the bullpen at just the cost of more of the Ricketts family money and Thomas Hatch so far. Derek Holland is the only pitcher acquired so far that the Cubs only have control over through the end of the season. David Phelps signed a make good deal with a team option next year.
Phelps has a unique performance based team option based on appearances. Currently with his 17 appearances the option would be a mere million dollars, but when he inevitably crosses the 30 appearance mark it jumps to 3 million dollars. The figure jumps to $5 million and $7 million if he crosses 40 or 50 appearances. Doing some back of the envelope math, Phelps might be available tomorrow night which would give him 56 more games to appear in. If he appeared in 40% of those games that would be 23 appearances to his current 17, which would equal 40, making $5 million the likely cost for 2020.
Either way the Cubs have added two right handed relievers that boost the strikeout rate of the pen significantly. Phelps as a reliever has struck batters out at 32.4%, 26.1%, and 25.4% this season working with diminished velocity. That lowest strikeout rate would check in second in the current Cubs bullpen just behind Craig Kimbrel‘s 27.5%. With a minimal investment, the Cubs have given a legitimate option to fill the void created by finally properly handling Pedro Strop.