Phillies trade for David Phelps — what's his role in revamped bullpen?


The Phillies opened the season with 11 relievers. Five weeks later, only three of them are on the active roster.

Nick Pivetta, Trevor Kelley, Deolis Guerra, Austin Davis, Ramon Rosso, Cole Irvin and Reggie McClain are all gone — either traded, designated for assignment or sent to Lehigh Valley.

It was only 10 days ago that McClain, Irvin and Guerra were the first three out of the 'pen in an 11-2 Phillies loss. Half the bullpen has changed since then.

The latest move came Monday, about an hour before the trade deadline, when the Phillies sent three players to be named later to the Brewers for right-handed reliever David Phelps. 

With Phelps, Brandon Workman, Heath Hembree, David Hale and Ranger Suarez (activated for the first time this season prior to Monday's game), the Phillies have added five new relievers in less than two weeks. They've gone from crossing their fingers with unproven pitchers to filling out the bullpen with guys who actually belong in a contender's bullpen.

"It just changes the complexion of our team," an excited Joe Girardi said.

With better work of late from incumbents Hector Neris and Tommy Hunter, the Phillies suddenly have actual relief depth.

"The way we're looking at David Phelps is he's another guy we can utilize at the end of the game," GM Matt Klentak said. "At the end of any given night you could have Phelps or Hembree or Tommy setting up for Workman or Neris. Any combination of that. Whether you're up by a run, down by a run, seventh, eighth, ninth, we feel like we have guys to pitch high-leverage innings for us.

"As notable as anything, Tommy Hunter and Hector Neris are much different pitchers than they were a couple weeks ago."

Hunter has allowed one run and five baserunners in his last eight innings. Neris has made two straight 1-2-3 appearances.

Girardi kept his options open in discussing the Phelps move, saying he still plans to match up in the later innings. Workman has saved three games for the Phillies but all five outings have been shaky and included multiple baserunners. Neris could get another opportunity to close before long. On Sunday night, if the Phillies had a save opportunity they would have used Hunter, Girardi said, to give Workman and Neris a breather.

Phelps will pitch in high-leverage situations. Sometimes that will mean two men on and one out in the seventh inning. Sometimes it will mean pitching the eighth. Sometimes it could mean closing.

"I had him in New York. He's a fantastic competitor," Girardi said. "He expects to be perfect every day. He's a guy that in the past has done multiple innings. If we possibly needed that one day, I think you could do that as well."

In 13 innings this season, Phelps has put just nine men on base. He's struck out 20 and walked two. 

Since 2016, Phelps has a 2.85 ERA in 171 appearances with 11.0 strikeouts per nine innings. He's held right-handed hitters to a .196 batting average.

"He's a veteran who's had a lot of success, but this year, you've seen a spike in his performance," Klentak said. "His fastball is playing bigger than it has in the past. He's learning to live at the top of the zone a little more and the results are following — the strikeout rate, the soft contact that he's generating. He's really a different guy coming off his (2018 Tommy John surgery)."

The Phillies will have a tough decision to make when activating Phelps this week. Lefty JoJo Romero may have been the roster casualty but he's pitched so well — three appearances, three innings, one baserunner, six strikeouts. Perhaps the Phillies could DFA Neil Walker and keep an extra reliever. He's done little this season. No other member of the bullpen is a cut candidate.

The Phillies were less than a million dollars beneath the luxury tax threshold but this move will not put them over. "We should be under. There will be minimal transactions from this point forward," Klentak said.

The Brewers signed Phelps on January 29. It was a one-year, $1.5 million deal with a 2021 club option for $4.5 million that can be bought out for $250,000. There are incentives ranging from $175,000 to $400,000 based on games pitched.

There wasn't much stopping the Phillies from signing Phelps to a similar deal seven months ago. Aside from bringing back Hunter on a one-year deal, they did not sign a reliever to a guaranteed contract last offseason. They let the high-, middle- and low-tier relievers come off the board and signed veterans like Francisco Liriano, Anthony Swarzak, Bud Norris and Drew Storen to minor-league deals.

Neglecting the bullpen cost the Phillies dearly in the season's first month. They've scored more runs per game than every team in the American League yet entered Monday a game under .500. 

Better late than never.

"This was a continuation of what we started 10 days ago," Klentak said. "To patch up what was a weakness for us the first few weeks of the year. Now we've got a much deeper bullpen than we had a couple weeks ago."

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