The Cubs and Blue Jays agreed to a trade this afternoon, sending David Phelps to the North Siders in exchange for pitching prospect Thomas Hatch. The Cubs are locked in a tight divisional race with the Cardinals and the Brewers, tied for first place entering today’s play. They are the favorites to win the division (we have their division odds at 56.8%), but they have been hampered by a weak bullpen all year. The Phelps trade is an attempt to shore their biggest weakness up.
The Cubs relief corps is a motley assortment of over-30 stalwarts (Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Brad Brach, and Pedro Strop), converted starters (Tyler Chatwood and new addition Derek Holland), and Craig Kimbrels (Craig Kimbrel). Out of the entire bullpen, only Kyle Ryan, Rowan Wick, and Kintzler have provided even 10 innings of sub-4 FIP performance, which explains the group’s collective 4.22 ERA, 4.66 FIP, and 0.1 WAR. While some of that dicey performance was traded (Mike Montgomery) or optioned to Triple-A (Carl Edwards Jr.), it’s still a position of need.
Can Phelps fulfill that need? It’s an interesting question, and Phelps is about as interesting as you can get for a journeyman reliever with 0 WAR on the year. As recently as 2016, Phelps was a dominant reliever (in his first year after converting from starting), throwing 86.2 innings and amassing a 2.28 ERA and 2.8 FIP. In the middle of a strong 2017, he was traded, as all players must eventually be, to the Mariners, where he promptly had elbow problems. A bone spur in his throwing arm cut that season short, and if that sounds ominous to you, it should: he subsequently tore his UCL in spring training, and missed all of 2018 and the start of 2019 recovering.
Before his injury, Phelps was a prototypical bullpen arm. He sat 94-95 with a sinker/four-seam combination and occasionally touched 98. The velocity hasn’t come back, at least not completely; he’s closer to 92-93 in his 17 appearances with the Blue Jays this year. To compensate for that lost velocity, he’s featured a cutter much more since returning (32.3% of his pitches this year). He also boasts a swooping curveball that he uses mainly as a change of pace.
At his best, Phelps uses his four-seamer aggressively and works every other pitch off of it. There are signs that he’s close to regaining that form: in his most recent appearance, he averaged 93.5 mph on his four-seam fastball and 90 on the cutter. That version of Phelps could be good news for the Cubs, who desperately need another reliable bullpen arm. Given his short track record since coming back from injury and its attendant rehab, nothing in his numbers says much either way about whether his skill level has changed, but relievers returning from Tommy John are a volatile bunch, so the range of outcomes is wide.
Phelps should slot into the middle of the bullpen, letting the Cubs lean less on Strop and Chatwood, who have fallen out of Joe Maddon’s good graces in recent weeks. He also exemplifies the Cubs’ strategy in building their bullpen: he’s a high variance player, who could be one of the best 30 relievers in baseball or barely rosterable within a month or two. The Cubs have taken a shot at guys like this several times in the past year, and Phelps represents another bite at the apple.
Should Phelps excel for the Cubs, his contract works in their favor. His contract has a team option for 2020, worth between $1 and $8 million depending on appearances this year. Should he finish with his Depth Charts-projected number of appearances, that would work out to a $3 million deal, a bargain for a reliever of his caliber. If he makes it to 40 appearances, his salary escalates to $5 million, still a fine rate for a reliable reliever.
As for the Blue Jays, they turned an offseason signing of a player recovering from Tommy John surgery into an intriguing prospect. Thomas Hatch is a 24-year-old starter in Double-A, where he’s having a middling season. He has strikeout stuff and sits 91-94 as a starter, though scouts see him transitioning to a relief role and adding a few ticks of velocity. His control is the real wild card here — Eric and Kiley gave him a 40 for present and future command this past offseason, and he’s had trouble locating his fastball for strikes in 2019, though he’s kept his walk rate under control. He slots in at 29th on the Blue Jays’ org list.
The ideal outcome, from the Jays’ perspective, is probably developing Hatch into a facsimile of David Phelps. That kind of player, as the Cubs showed in making this trade, is very valuable, and Hatch has a shot to do that at the major league level. For a team that isn’t competing in 2019, turning 1.5 years of volatile but good middle relief into more years of volatile but possibly good middle relief is a shrewd move. With Ken Giles unlikely to be traded given his injury woes, this seems like a reasonable fallback for the Jays.
Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.