In the 10 days that culminated with a typically frenzied trade deadline in this most atypical of baseball seasons, 12 notable major-league relief pitchers changed teams.
Four wound up with the Phillies.
Sounds about right, doesn’t it? You need not work in a front office to have realized that only an extreme makeover could stop the Phillies’ bullpen from torpedoing the season. So general manager Matt Klentak beat the trade deadline Monday by swinging a deal for veteran reliever David Phelps from the Milwaukee Brewers and adding him to fellow right-handers David Hale, Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree, all of whom were acquired in a pair of Aug. 21 trades.
“I think [Phelps] adds another really good arm to our bullpen that has a number of weapons to use,” manager Joe Girardi said. “They’re all experienced options, guys that have been used to pitching in the back end during playoff runs and in playoffs. It just changes the complexion of our team.”
That was the idea, of course.
Klentak said the Phillies were “involved in quite a few things” up until the deadline, even exploring a starting pitching market in which lefties Mike Minor and Robbie Ray were moved and Mike Clevinger wound up with the San Diego Padres in a nine-player blockbuster.
But the bullpen had an 8.07 ERA – 8.07! – on Aug. 21, one day after blowing 2-0 and 7-0 leads in a doubleheader sweep. Not doing anything then – and continuing to act now – to address such a profound weakness would have been general manager malpractice, especially for a franchise with no playoff appearances since 2011 and a record payroll that is brushing up against the $208 million luxury-tax threshold.
Assembling even a respectable bullpen didn’t have to be this difficult, though. It didn’t have to involve trading away six young pitchers either (Addison Russ to the New York Yankees for Hale; Nick Pivetta and Connor Seabold to the Boston Red Sox for Workman and Hembree; three players to be named – all reportedly rookie-ball right-handers – for Phelps).
The Phillies could have done more to improve the bullpen last winter. Phelps, for one, was available in free agency until the end of January. Girardi knew him well, too, having managed him with the Yankees from 2012 to 2014.
But although the Phillies talked with Phelps’ agent, they watched as he signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract (with a $4.5 million club option for 2021) with Milwaukee and opted for minor-league fliers on Drew Storen, Francisco Liriano, Bud Norris and Anthony Swarzak. None worked out.
In trading for Phelps now, Klentak lauded the 33-year-old’s improved ability to generate swings and misses by throwing his fastball at the top of the strike zone. That’s evident in his 41.7% strikeout rate in 12 appearances for the Brewers this season, up from his career mark of 22.6%. In particular, Phelps has been tough on left-handed hitters, striking out 15 of the 32 that he has faced.
Phelps is also inducing weaker contact this year (52% groundball rate compared to 42.8% over his career). His walk rate is down (4.2% compared to 9.2% for his career). He has a 2.77 ERA and a 20-to-2 strikeouts-to-walks ratio.
“He’s a really different guy coming off his [Tommy John elbow] surgery a couple years ago,” Klentak said. “The way we’re looking at David Phelps is he’s another guy that we can utilize at the back of the game.”
Girardi deployed him in several roles with the Yankees, often for multiple innings and sometimes even as a starter. Those days are probably over, although with 30 games in 27 days in September – including five doubleheaders already scheduled – anything’s possible.
One thing is clear: Girardi’s fondness for Phelps when they were together in New York all those years ago hasn’t dimmed.
“He’s a fantastic competitor,” Girardi said. “And he expects to be perfect every day. He’s added velocity. He pitches up in the zone more. He’s not just a sinker-slider guy anymore. He’s got a good curveball. He has a good cutter. He’s changed a lot. But he’s been an effective reliever for a number of years.”
Indeed, Phelps has a 2.85 ERA since the beginning of the 2016 season, the 15th-best mark among 157 relievers who have pitched at least 150 innings during that time.
Girardi imagines using Phelps in a setup role once he joins the team, likely on Tuesday. Regardless, the Phillies’ bullpen will include at least five relievers (Phelps, Workman, Hembree, Hale, and lefty Ranger Suarez, called up Monday after recovering from COVID-19) who weren’t there on Aug. 21.
If lefty Jose Alvarez is able to return from a testicular contusion, and if Hector Neris and Tommy Hunter continue to improve after early-season struggles, Girardi suddenly has better options.
“This was really the front office doing a great job, and I think Matt did a good job of recognizing that we needed help,” Girardi said. “He started about 10 days ago, and I give him a lot of credit for addressing a need that we needed right away.”