Here's how David Phelps is looking at free agency
Reliever eager to prove he's healthy following Tommy John surgery
SEATTLE -- When David Phelps hits free agency for the first time in three weeks, he'll do so with little in the way of bargaining power.
That, and his entire 2018 season with the Mariners, went south in one excruciating flash of pain in his throwing elbow on the final pitch of a Cactus League game against the Angels last March, a moment that led to Tommy John surgery and a long year of rehab and recovery for the talented reliever.
Phelps made $5.5 million last season in his final year of arbitration eligibility, and he now reaches the free-agent market at a less-than-opportune time. But he has his sights set on a full recovery by Spring Training.
"It's completely different vs. what it would have been had I had a good year or even a bad year," Phelps said before heading home to Pittsburgh for the offseason. "But at this point, I'm not stressed about it. All I can worry about is getting healthy and hope that what I've done in the past speaks for itself. When I've been healthy in my career, I've brought value to teams. Hopefully I get healthy and can continue that."
The Mariners expected the 32-year-old to be a major part of their bullpen this past season, teaming with Juan Nicasio and Nick Vincent as a setup trio to closer Edwin Diaz. But Phelps never pitched in a regular-season game, and Nicasio struggled through several months before being shut down and eventually having surgery to clean up bone chips in his right knee.
That led general manager Jerry Dipoto to acquire Alex Colome from the Rays in May to fill that setup role, and Phelps watched from the sidelines.
Unlike many Major Leaguers who undergo Tommy John surgery and immediately head home to deal with the recovery process, Phelps chose to stay in Seattle and work out with the Mariners every day. He remained a constant presence in the clubhouse as a friend and advisor to fellow relievers while getting in his work and eventually beginning a throwing program in the final month of the season.
"It's been good being able to be around the guys and still be around the game," Phelps said. "I was fortunate to get a ton of family time when the team was on the road and whatnot. But it's been good being here. It kind of kept me sane.
"It's been a long year. You come into a season with high expectations and don't expect it to just end that quickly. But rehab has been really good. I've had no setbacks or issues so far. I'm on track to be ready by Spring Training next year. It's just where that is, is still to be determined."
Phelps was acquired by the Mariners in July of 2017 from the Marlins and posted a 3.12 ERA in 10 outings before being shut down with bone chips in his elbow. He underwent cleanup surgery on that and appeared full go in spring before his elbow gave out.
Dipoto mentioned Phelps among the potential returnees to the bullpen at his postseason media session, but wherever Phelps lands will obviously be at either a much-reduced salary or a Minor League deal before he proves he's healthy enough to compete again.
Phelps, who pitched three seasons with the Yankees and three in Miami before landing in Seattle, isn't ruling out a return.
"I love the guys here," Phelps said. "I had a great experience here. The ball is not necessarily in my court on that. We'll see how it plays out this offseason. It's not exactly how you expect to go into free agency, but it's free agency nonetheless. I'm looking forward to it."
As a 14th-round Draft pick out of Notre Dame by the Yankees in 2008, Phelps knows he's already beaten the odds by putting up a career in which he's pitched in 226 big league games, including 64 starts, while posting a 3.89 ERA.
"If you'd have told me when I was coming out of college that I'd pitch seven years in the big leagues, I'd have laughed at you at that point," Phelps said. "Where I came from to where I am now, it's been an incredible blessing. It's been a fun ride up to this point.
"I don't think it's over. I still have quite a bit left to prove. And fortunately, the surgery itself is something that is fairly predictable with the recovery. If I can get back to what I was before surgery, I've still got a little time to prove what I can do."
Which is why Phelps spent the past six months in the Mariners' facility, rubbing elbows with pitchers who've had their own elbow issues.
"On every team you've played with, there's somebody who has come back from Tommy John," Phelps said. "Look at Marco [Gonzales] and the year he just had. There are examples all over the league of guys who come back and are what they were before. It's what you pray and hope for."