M’s Acquire David Phelps, RP – Once and Future Starter?

marc w · July 20, 2017 at 11:00 am · Filed Under Mariners 

The rumors began swirling last night and the details got ironed out this morning: the M’s made a move to strengthen their surging club, picking up RH set-up man David Phelps from the Miami Marlins. Phelps, 30 (he’ll turn 31 right around the end of the season), had been a starter for several years with the Yankees before moving to relief full time last year. As a reliever, he’s added 3-4 MPH to his fastball and turned in a great season in 2016 before regressing a bit this year. The return is, even given the M’s weak system, pretty steep for a non-elite non-closing reliever: the M’s will send their preseason #7 prospect (CF Brayan Hernandez) along with SP prospect Brandon Miller, SP Pablo Lopez and RP Lukas Schiraldi. There’s not a low-risk prospect among them, and the M’s have protected their most valuable trade chips, but remember: this package acquired a 30 year old righty set-up guy making $4.6 M this year and under club control for one more season (in which that salary will rise considerably). I understand that prices are high at the deadline, and win-now teams may have to overpay in talent a bit, but fundamentally, this is too much for a reliever with whose rest-of-season projections are fractionally better than Emilio Pagan’s. The M’s could probably use a righty reliever, but with Nick Vincent’s magical season continuing and with Tony Zych contributing, the gains from Phelps would be imperceptible. That’s why this deal makes sense only if they didn’t get Phelps to a set-up man at all.

Phelps has a four-seam fastball with average armside run, a decent sinker with a bit more movement, and two breaking balls: a hard curve that now comes in at around 81 and a very hard cutter at 90-91 that’s essentially his bread and butter pitch. Against lefties, he uses the cutter more than either of his true fastballs, and he’ll throw his curve frequently. He pitches off the four-seamer to righties, but he mixes in the curve and cutter pretty liberally. As a starter with the Yankees he had a change-up as well that worked decently, but he struggled with it for a few years and has all but abandoned it in his new role. Still, we’re talking about a guy with four usable pitches plus a fifth that he put away in part due to results and in part due to the fact that no relief pitcher needs five pitches. The cutter may be his best pitch, but this is not a huge swing and miss pitch – his fastballs miss more bats. Rather, its horizontal movement can create poor contact and fouls, allowing Phelps to get ahead before putting hitters away with fastballs (his four-seam was 91 as a starter, but is now sitting at 95) and his curve. After striking out nearly a third of the batters he faced last year in his first go-round as a full-time reliever, he’s settled in this year at around 25%. That’s better than league average, but barely: relievers – as a whole – have struck out 23.4% of batters this year. Phelps walks more than average as well; his walk rate this year is nearly 11%, right about where it was last year, too. Thus, his K-BB% is more or less league average. The cutter and his newfound velocity have helped him post lower-than-average HR rates, but much more likely is that his park is helping him out: in the past two years, he’s given up 2 HRs in his spacious home park, but 9 on the road. His HR-suppression seems tied to Miami.

He’s got pretty normal platoon splits this year after spending 2016 as a more extreme death-to-righties arm. Overall, this is something of an odd profile for a reliever. So much about him seems to work better, or be more valuable, as a starter. Despite the velo jump, his HR rate and K-BB% numbers look pretty similar in either role. Yes, he had a brilliant 2016, but the M’s didn’t – or shouldn’t have – acquired him assuming that was what he’d be in late 2017. The M’s have Andrew Moore and Sam Gaviglio in their rotation at the moment, and the minors won’t be sending in replacements unless they want to shift Max Povse back to the rotation, or take another look at Christian Bergman. Meanwhile, righties in their bullpen behind Edwin Diaz include Nick Vincent and Tony Zych (both of whose rest-of-season projections are easily better than Phelps’) as well as Yovani Gallardo, Steve Cishek, and Emilio Pagan; Dan Altavilla’s a short drive away as well. The M’s clear need is at SP. The pitcher they acquired seems to fit better in that role. Make it happen, M’s.

So, if they *really* acquired a starter, does that make the return look a bit more balanced? Maybe a bit, but yet again I’m wondering who the M’s were bidding against? This team seems like it’s struggled to value relief pitching in general, from the contracts given to Cishek and Marc Rzepczynski to the trades involving Carson Smith and James Pazos. Many of these have worked out great! But I’d like to feel that the M’s are driving a hard bargain, and not fixating on a particular player and then yielding too much in return. There are legitimate concerns with Brayan Hernandez, the centerpiece of this deal. He’s still only 19 and not tearing up the NWL (which would be a pretty high bar, I realize). But a top 10 prospect, perhaps another on the fringe of the top 10 (Miller), for an over-30 reliever with 1.5 years of control and a 2018 salary of $5-6 million? Yes, he might command a bit more as teams know he was a starter, and presumably could be again. But how *much* more? It’s so difficult to compare across systems and trades, but the D-Backs sent 1 top-10 prospect (Dawel Lugo) and a back-end of the top 20 (Sergio Alcantara) plus some stuff to Detroit for JD Martinez. Is this package similar? Eh, that’s a stretch considering how close Lugo is to the majors, but the D-Backs get one of the best bats on the market, while the M’s get either their new 3rd-4th best set-up man or a shot at a starting pitcher conversion. I like Phelps (as a starter), and like that the M’s didn’t part with Tyler O’Neill or Nick Neidert to potentially improve their rotation. I’d love to feel a bit more comfortable about the M’s ability to get value in trade, though.


5 Responses to “M’s Acquire David Phelps, RP – Once and Future Starter?”

  1. Sportszilla on July 20th, 2017 12:07 pm

    I’d be curious to know your thoughts on Jeff’s piece just now about this trade; he seems higher on Phelps, both as a reliever and as a starter. Seems unlikely that they’d try to stretch him out right now, but not impossible, and given that the M’s are never going to have a great rotation (since right now it’s basically Paxton and hope the offense hits some home runs), adding more arms to the ‘pen to shorten the game seems wise.

  2. Notfromboise on July 20th, 2017 12:08 pm

    When i first saw Phelp’s name i assumed it was as a starter. I’ll freely admit i didnt realize he’d been moved to the pen at all.

    However this shakes out I’m glad to see a dependable arm come in, and if it’s someone who can get us 6 innings every 5th day, so much the better.

  3. HighBrie on July 20th, 2017 1:50 pm

    Jeff over at Fangraphs thinks that Phelps the reliever is roughly Ken Giles or Brad Hand. I don’t mind the idea of trying him out as a starter, but in the short term, a multi-inning effective reliever to stretch weak starts (Moore, Gaviglio, anyone) might have more value this season than taking the time it takes to stretch him out and get him reacquainted with a starting role.
    Here’s the link to FG. http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/mariners-get-david-phelps-who-is-good/

  4. marc w on July 20th, 2017 2:00 pm

    Sportszilla –

    Just read Jeff’s piece, and yes, I think he is higher on him. I still see him as a better-than-average reliever, and one who might add some value down the stretch, but as even Jeff acknowledges that he’s not in the upper-echelon/elite tier of relievers, any bump in 2017 is going to be really, really marginal. The baseline is what you’re getting from Nick Vincent+Steve Cishek+Tony Zych, and what you could get from Pagan/Altavilla. Compare that to the upgrade from a Sam Gaviglio to Phelps, where the increased innings and lower baseline might actually add up to closer to a win.

    Beyond that, there’s a disagreement over how to forecast him going forward. If you take the midpoint between 2016 and 2017 and call it good, he’s going to look much better. I think it’s notable that the projections systems (ZiPS, Steamer, etc.) do NOT do so, and there are plenty of valid reasons why they shouldn’t. Age, for one, and the fact that the novelty bump he may have gotten isn’t there anymore – that is, the surprise factor where batters were baffled by the fact that *David Phelps* was throwing 95 all of the sudden. He could add more value as a multi-inning guy, a possibility Jeff mentions, but his consistency against lefties – which works to his advantage as a starter – might make it harder as a 2 IP set-up guy. Teams can pinch hit against him a lot easier when he’s pitching the 7th-8th, after all.

    You’re right that the M’s aren’t going to have a good rotation, but that’s where they need help the most. Over the past 30 days, a spell that’s included Felix’s best start, Paxton’s gem, etc., they’ve been worth exactly 1 fWAR, 20th in MLB. Over the same time period, their bullpen ranks 7th in WAR, producing the same total in half the innings. Moving the pen from 7th to, I dunno, 3rd, would be a huge (read: not terribly likely) accomplishment, and it wouldn’t do a whole lot.

  5. Westside guy on July 20th, 2017 3:15 pm

    I hear the Marlins initially tried to get the Mariners interested in an older Japanese pitcher, but the M’s were concerned with his high ERA and his very low innings count.

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