On Tuesday, the Pirates designated Josh Phelps for assignment in order to make room on the 40-man roster. This move came as a surprise to me, as he enjoyed staggering success in a limited role with the team in 2007. After struggling with the Yankees early in the season, Phelps took off after being claimed by the Pirates in June. In 77 at-bats, he hit .351/.463/.649 for an OPS+ of 187. 11 of his 27 hits went for extra bases as he provided much needed pop off the bench. These numbers are even more incredible when compared with the rest of the Pirates’ offense. As a team, the Bucs hit .263/.325/.411 in 2007, well below league average. Phelps was an anomaly at the plate.
Of course, there are a few reasons that the Pirates’ may view Phelps as expendable. The most obvious is the small sample size of his extraordinary performance. As Pirate fans, we know all too well how easy it is to get caught up in a small sampling of success, only to get burnt. We have experienced it many times. However, while it is preposterous to expect Phelps to duplicate his performance from last season, he has a track record of above average offense. Beginning in 2002, he has produced an OPS+ of 100 or better four times. For his career, he has hit .273/.344/.476 for an OPS+ of 112. No regular Pirate player had an OPS+ higher than 112 in 2007.
Another possibility is that the Pirates did not expect to have a spot for Phelps in 2008. He is unimpressive defensively, and Ronny Paulino, Adam LaRoche, Ryan Doumit, Steve Pearce and Xavier Nady are all capable of manning Phelps’ primary positions. Assuming each of these players is still with the team next season, there would not be a bench spot available for Phelps. However, it is quite possible that Neal Huntington will look to trade at least one out of the group of Nady, LaRoche and Jason Bay this offseason. If any of these players is dealt, the depth provided by Phelps would be very helpful.
Finally, finances may have played a part in this decision. Phelps earned $600,000 in 2007, and is due a fairly significant raise in 2008 as he is eligible for arbitration for the first time. The team may have deemed that too high a price for a decent hitter off the bench with limited versatility and poor defense. This reasoning makes some sense to me, as the Pirates are not in a situation where they should be overpaying for bench players.
All things considered, it seems silly to release a player who provides above average offense. This is especially true when one takes into account how scarce offensive production is on the team. This will probably not be a significant transaction in the long run, but that does not mean that I have to like it today.