There is a school of thought that the 2019 Cubs should have a sense of urgency. The window is now, the talent is here and at its peak years, they signed the best available closer in Craig Kimbrel to a three-year, $43 million deal. They are half a game back in the standings even as they struggle through injuries. The time is now.
I suppose one could make those arguments if they were so inclined. They might also make the following arguments:
For all the talk of a sense of urgency this team has seemed to lack urgency at key times this year. Urgency has at best seemed like a 50-50 bet, a matter of chance. Will the bats show up in a big inning? Who knows? Will the bullpen be able to hold a one run lead late? Maybe, maybe not. Don’t have a clear closer for most of the start of the season? Keep riding Pedro Strop or Steve Cishek out there until after signing Kimbrel won’t cost a draft pick anymore. It’s not like eight blown saves could be the difference in the tightest division in baseball in September.
And for this latter group of people, I give you the Cubs at the trade deadline, where they have decided to go big or go home by turning backup catcher Martín Maldonado into Tony Kemp, while also acquiring LOOGY Derek Holland for cash considerations and right handed bullpen arm David Phelps for a minor league arm.
It feels generous to call this tinkering at the margins, but let’s take a closer look at what the Cubs have acquired in 32-year-old Phelps and 27-year-old utility man Kemp. You can read more about the Holland deal here.
David Phelps is a solid middle-inning reliever who has been substantially better in the bullpen than he was as a starter. In 2019 he uses a four-pitch mix that includes a cutter that sits around 89 mph that he throws 32 percent of the time, a knuckle curve that sits around 80 mph that he throws 28 percent of the time, a 92 mph fourseam fastball that he throws 25 percent of the time with a 92 mph sinker mixed in the remaining 15 percent of the time.
This compilation of some pretty favorable numbers since Phelps became a reliever was making the rounds on Twitter and while I agree that it’s cause for optimism, I think there needs to be a hefty grain of salt with these numbers:
Phelps since becoming a reliever full-time pic.twitter.com/sGscIv1mpA— Zach (@ZWMartin) July 30, 2019
You see, the vast majority of the numbers behind that 2.82 ERA were compiled before Phelps had Tommy John surgery in March 2018. The 2019 numbers look more like this: 3.63 ERA, 4.78 FIP and 5.03 xFIP. That implies that the 3.63 ERA, which is by far the worst stretch for Phelps since joining the bullpen, is actually over-performing. Adding another reliever to the bullpen who gives up more than 4 ER/9 isn’t exactly a huge improvement. I suppose he can eat some innings here and there.
Additionally, it looks like a substantial velocity drop may be one of the reasons behind Phelps’ decline. As you can see below his velocity is down about three mph across the board since 2017:
For those of you who have been begging for more swing and miss stuff guys in the pen, Phelps is not it, but he does give the Cubs another arm to throw out there in to eat a few innings.
Kemp is far more intriguing than Phelps, if for no other reason than he replaces a third catcher who the Cubs really haven’t been playing since Willson Contreras came back from injury. Kemp has been worth 0.6 fWAR for the Houston Astros over 66 games this season and he fits in nicely with the Cubs’ collection of “maybe this guy can make up for not paying Tommy LaStella $1.35 million” second basemen.
In all seriousness, while his .227/.308/.417 slash line isn’t exactly anything to write home about, his wRC+ of 94 puts him squarely in the top tier of second basemen the Cubs have assembled. You can see how he stacks up there below:
Cubs 2B Options in 2019
Admittedly, he’s spent more time in the outfield than at second base this year, but I have to imagine he’s here to give Robel Garcia and David Bote a day off now and again and maybe fill in at a corner outfield spot occasionally. And hey, he did all of that with a relatively unlucky BABIP of .233, so who knows, maybe he can have a bounce back second half.
Look, Theo Epstein told Cubs fans what he believed at the start of 2019 and we all should have listened. There is no cavalry coming. There is no magical deal for a leadoff hitter or perfect upgrade at second base. Frankly, the anomalous move in the Cubs series of moves for 2019 was signing Kimbrel and I believe them when they say that only occurred because they freed up money from Ben Zobrist’s time on the restricted list.
No white knight is riding in to save this team. This is a collection of champion players that Epstein and Jed Hoyer assembled on purpose because they believe this team can win when it matters. It is up to them to get the job done. If they don’t, the championship window will close. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.