The Cubs have added another fresh face to the bullpen, announced Tuesday that they’ve acquired right-handed reliever David Phelps and cash from the Blue Jays in exchange for minor league right-hander Thomas Hatch. Chicago moved Xavier Cedeno to the 60-day injured list to open a 40-man roster spot for Phelps. There are other changes afoot in the Chicago bullpen as well, as ESPN 1000’s David Kaplan reports that righty Pedro Strop is headed to the IL and will be replaced by right-hander Duane Underwood, who is being recalled from Triple-A Iowa (Twitter link).
Phelps, 32, was a high-quality setup piece for the Marlins and Mariners in 2016-17 but missed the 2018 season due to Tommy John surgery. He hit the open market last winter and latched on with the Blue Jays on an incentive-laden one-year contract that promised him a $2.5MM base salary. Toronto quite likely made the deal with this very type of scenario in mind, as Phelps has returned to post solid numbers through his first 17 1/3 innings of action: a 3.63 ERA with an 18-to-7 K/BB ratio.
A swingman with the Yankees from 2012-14, Phelps broke out with the Marlins in the bullpen and has now logged an impressive 2.82 ERA with 10.9 K/9 against 4.0 BB/9 in his past 159 2/3 innings at the MLB level (129 relief appearances, six starts). He’s only appeared in 17 games this season but will see a $250K bump in salary upon reaching each of his 25th, 30th and 35th games pitched. He’ll also earn an extra $350K upon 40, 45, 50, 55 and 70 appearances on the year.
Phelps’ club option came with a tiny $1MM base salary but will jump to $3MM if he reaches 30 appearances, $5MM if he appears in 40 games and $7MM for appearing in 50 games. Obviously, he’s not likely to reach the top tier of his incentives and option escalators after missing the first two and a half months of the season, but it’s certainly plausible that he could push that 40-game threshold in 2019.
Phelps gives the Cubs an immediate boost in the ’pen — even if he’s not a dramatic upgrade — and also presents them with a relatively affordable option in 2020 due to that floating club option. Payroll constraints have been an ongoing obstacle for the Cubs’ front office dating back to the winter, but they’ll have a huge slate of free agents off the books this winter (Cole Hamels, Brandon Morrow, Strop, Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler and Brad Brach among them), which will render any decision on Phelps’ option a fairly small-scale consideration.
Hatch, 24, was the Cubs’ third-round pick back in 2016 and has spent the 2019 season in his second trip through the Double-A level. He’s tossed 100 innings of 4.59 ERA ball over the life of 21 starts, averaging 8.4 K/9, 3.3 BB/9 and 1.17 HR/9 to go along with a 35.2 percent ground-ball rate. He didn’t crack the Cubs’ top 30 on Baseball America’s recent re-ranking of their system, but he landed at No. 26 on Fangraphs’ summer update of Chicago’s farm system. There, Kiley McDaniel and Eric Longenhagen noted that he hasn’t developed the control one would want to see to keep him in the rotation but could find success in the ’pen. Entering the season, MLB.com ranked him 29th in the Cubs’ system and actually gave him the potential for three average or better offerings while expressing similar concerns about his control. The Jays may well see if Hatch has the ability to start in the short-term, as there’s little harm for a rebuilding club to try it out.