Phelps Likely Odd Man Out in Cleveland Infield
During Spring Training the DTTWLN staff will profile and examine the coaches and players that make up and are vying to be part of the 2013 Cleveland Indians—A Team With A New Direction. Today, we examine one of the players on the 40-man roster that is in a roster battle to earn a spot on the 25-man roster.
By Craig Gifford
It was just two seasons ago that the Indians were looking for help at second base and turned to a rookie named Cord Phelps. In 2011, Phelps and Jason Kipnis were both highly regarded players at Triple-A Columbus. It was Phelps who received the first shot to play in Cleveland.
Phelps made his Indians debut on June 8, 2011. Kipnis was not promoted for more than a month while the Tribe took a look at what it had in the promising Phelps. Phelps struggled to adjust to the big leagues. Kipnis debuted on July 22, that year and has played at a near All-Star level ever since. Now, Kipnis is in camp with the second base job secured, while Phelps is just trying to find a place with the Tribe.
For Phelps to make the club, a lot would have to go wrong for other people. Phelps’ secondary position is shortstop, where two-time All-Star Asdrubal Cabrera stands. Even to make the Tribe roster as a bench player, he would have to beat out offseason acquisition Mike Aviles, who has proven himself an adequate middle infielder in the majors over the past few years.
With the road to the majors seemingly blocked up the middle for Phelps, the Indians have discussed moving him to other positions to increase his value. They have looked at the 26-year-old at third base. If he can transition to the hot corner, Phelps could provide insurance for the promising Lonnie Chisenhall. Chisenhall has all the ability to be Cleveland’s every day third baseman, but has battled injuries each of the past two seasons.
Cleveland may also try out Phelps in the outfield later in spring training. Despite adding Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn and Drew Stubbs in the offseason the outfield is still an area that lacks depth for the Tribe. There is not much at the minor league level. In fact, that could be the best route for Phelps to go.
Ryan Raburn, Tim Fedroff and Ezequiel Carrera are the primary candidates to fill Cleveland’s backup outfield spot. Raburn, a veteran reclamation project and Carrera, a weak-hitting, decent-fielding, speed guy are the safest bets to win that job. Neither inspire great confidence.
If Phelps could transition to the outfield, perhaps Cleveland could still salvage something good from its 2008 third round draft pick. Phelps certainly has the athletic ability to make that switch. He has shown the skill to move around the infield so a move to the outfield seems plausible.
Despite hitting only .173 in 49 games with Cleveland, Phelps has remained a consistently solid hitter in Triple-A. He appears to deserve at least one more shot at the majors with the Indians.
He has shown decent plate discipline with a career 8% walk rate. That is right at league average, but that walk rate helps little when a player bats less than .200. His numbers in two short seasons have been pretty abysmal. He owns a slash line of .173/.239/.269, displaying very poor power to go with that miniscule average.
The glaring problem seems to be with his batted balls. Phelps does not have to power to hit home runs at a high rate, but he elevates the ball like a power hitter. His fly ball percentage for his career is a very high 41.6%. This is on par with Mark Reynolds who posted a fly ball percentage of 42.5% last season on Baltimore. Phelps does not have Reynolds power, so most of those fly balls are falling harmlessly into outfielder’s gloves. As another point of reference, Kipnis has a career fly ball rate of 30.8%.
Last year in Columbus, Phelps batted a decent .276, low by his standards. He has added power to his swing, belting 14 and 16 home runs each of the last two summers. This spring, Phelps has looked good. In Cactus League play, he is hitting .357 in 14 at bats, through Friday’s games. He still has ability, despite struggling in Cleveland and falling down in the pecking order.
While the ability is there, the spots on the roster are not. If Phelps remains a primary second baseman, who can play the infield, it will take him a while to find his way back to Cleveland. If the rumored outfield experiment happens and goes well, the road to Progressive Field becomes a lot shorter.
Whatever happens, barring injury, Phelps is likely headed to the Clippers to start the year. He will be in the majors at some point. The sad truth about all sports is that injuries and unexpected struggles happen. Phelps, no matter the position, is one of the top guys in the minors for Cleveland to turn to. If he gets a shot, it could be his last. At 26, this season will be make or break for Phelps. Another disappointing stint with the Tribe would spell the end. Considering the sheer numbers and roadblocks in his path, Phelps’s days with the Indians may well be close to numbered.
Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer