When David Phelps signed with the Blue Jays this past offseason, his $2.5MM contract contained a club option for the 2020 season initially that was valued at $1MM — a likely reflection of the fact that his performance and general health were question marks coming off Tommy John surgery. Unsurprisingly, the contract allowed for him to boost the value of that option with a solid showing in 2019.
Activated from the IL on June 17 and traded to the Cubs on July 30, Phelps has been terrific for both teams, working to a combined 3.18 ERA with a 30-to-12 K/BB ratio in 28 1/3 innings (33 appearances). When he took the mound for the 30th time in 2019, he boosted the value of his 2020 option from that initial $1MM baseline to $3MM. He’s also already earned $500K of incentives and will earn another $250K when he makes his 35th appearance. If Phelps takes the ball seven more times before the end of the regular season, he’ll again boost the value of his option, this time to $5MM, and secure another $350K bonus.
The level at which his 2020 option settles is of particular intrigue because that will also determine the amount of incentives available to him next year. Phelps’ contract came with three different possible tiers of incentives, each of which was based on the option’s ultimate value. MLBTR has learned some of the specifics surrounding those incentive packages. If his option is valued at $3MM (i.e. he appears in 39 or fewer total games), Phelps would be able to earn an additional $2.75MM in appearance-based bonuses: $250K for reaching 25, 30 and 35 games as well as $400K for reaching 40, 45, 50, 55 and 60 games.
Were he to reach that 40-appearance threshold in 2019 and boost the value of the option to $5MM, he’d be able to earn an additional $1.5MM in appearance-based bonuses: $150K for reaching 25, 30 and 35 games as well as $210K for reaching 40, 45, 50, 55 and 60 games. Both tiers contain added incentives for games finished, but the Cubs’ signing of Craig Kimbrel doesn’t bode well for Phelps’ chances of an extended run as the team’s closer.
All of those factors will be weighed by the Cubs when they determine whether to bring Phelps back for the 2020 season, as will the fact that they stand to see a large chunk of their ’pen depart via free agency. Brandon Kintzler, Pedro Strop, Steve Cishek, Derek Holland, Xavier Cedeno, Tony Barnette and Brandon Morrow (who didn’t throw a pitch in 2019) are all off the books at season’s end.
From a pure performance standpoint, Phelps has improved as the season has worn on. His fastball averaged 92.1 mph with the Jays but is up to 92.8 mph with the Cubs. That’s still less than the 94.4 mph he averaged prior to Tommy John surgery, but the life on that heater does seem to be coming back. Phelps also managed just a 5.4 percent swinging-strike rate in Toronto but has seen that rate leap to 11.1 percent in Chicago — a rate that would represent a career-high. He’s also benefited from a sky-high 98.6 percent strand rate with the Cubs, though, which no pitcher can be expected sustain over a larger body of work. Phelps has held righties in check nicely (.232/.311/.377) but struggled against opposing lefties (.263/.349/.553).
Phelps’ usage over the regular season’s final couple of weeks will be worth monitoring, as it may ultimately play a large role in determining whether he’s back with the team in 2020 or searching for a new deal in free agency this winter. Neither the $3MM or $5MM price point is any sort of back-breaker, particularly with a fair bit of money coming off the books. But the Cubs also likely want to maintain as much flexibility as they can, and tacking on an extra $2MM to Phelps’ option is probably something they’d like to avoid, if possible, unless they’re planning to decline the option either way. There’s no buyout on the option, so this’ll be a straight $3MM or $5MM decision, depending on how many more times Phelps takes the ball prior to Sept. 29.