The good news for the Cleveland Indians is that Cord Phelps‘ bat is major league ready. The bad news for Cord Phelps is that phase two of his development as a multi-position super utility player needs work, and at the outset of the 2013 season that work will have to come as a member of the Triple-A Columbus Clippers.
Phelps, 26, was drafted by the Indians out of Stanford in the third round in 2008; he immediately signed and played the majority of his games with Mahoning Valley in the Appalachian League. In 2009 Phelps spent the entire year with the Kinston Indians and hit .261/.386/.363, showing a good eye at the plate with 93 walks while only striking out 97 times in 582 plate appearances. He began to make noise as a prospect in 2010 as he opened the year with the Double-A Akron Aeros and after 53 games he moved up to the Clippers where he began to show some pop in his bat (.317/.386/.506 with 6 homers in 273 plate appearances).
His growth with the bat continued and in 2011 he hit a robust .294/.376/.492 with 14 homers in 434 plate appearances in Columbus. He earned his first call to the majors where he debuted on June 8, 2011 and went 0-for-4 against the Minnesota Twins. Overall he did little to impress manager Manny Acta in his 35 big league games, hitting .155 (11-for-71) while committing five errors in only 75 chances at second base (.933 fielding percentage).
His performance with the Indians in 2011 must have placed him in Manny Acta’s doghouse because despite numerous injuries, poor performances, and a team going nowhere Phelps appeared in only 14 games with the Indians in 2012. Meanwhile, with the Clippers, he once again posted a very respectable line of .276/.368/.451 with 16 homers in 582 plate appearances. Despite his struggles in the majors, his bat really isn’t in question.
But hitting is only part of the equation. In 2011 the Indians began to try to make him a more flexible fielder by playing him at shortstop for 40 games. However, in 2012 the attempt to increase his versatility was suspended and he appeared in all 132 games in Columbus at second. Pigeonholing Phelps into a backup second baseman may have been a lost development opportunity for the Indians and Phelps, and acquiring the versatile Mike Aviles and Ryan Raburn over the winter could be viewed as a deterrent to Phelps’ development as a player. Instead, both player and team should use it as an opportunity to let Phelps grow and become more versatile in AAA.
Phelps has taken every opportunity to show Terry Francona who he is. He has had a very impressive spring training hitting .364 (16-for-44) while starting at both second and third. The good news for Phelps is that Francona has taken notice:
“Regardless of whether he makes our team or not, he’s played to the point where he’s going to help us win games, which we’re thrilled about. I know we have decisions to make coming up in a couple weeks, but we’re so happy with the way he’s played.”
Despite not having a lot of experience the Tribe skipper has confidence that Phelps can handle multiple positions:
“He can play second. He can play third. He can hit. He’s going to go play first. His versatility, and the way he hits, is exciting for us as an organization. Does that start on April 1? We don’t know yet. We’ll see.”
Phelps’ name may not be on Baseball America‘s Top 10 list but his future with the organization is still very bright. There was a time when the term utility player defined someone who played middle infield and appeared in a game or two a week. This player would be a slick fielding slap hitter and their value on the bench would be doing the little things like pinch run and sacrifice bunt. (I apologize if your mind drifted off to Joe Inglett or Mike Rouse)
The Indians won’t ask him to become (nor will they carry) a slick-fielding slap hitter. As a super utility player, he will find himself in a lineup several times a week, will be used as a pinch-hitter with the expectation to do more than lay down a sacrifice bunt, and will have to carry many different gloves in their bag.
Barring an injury the odds are against his heading to Toronto as part of the Opening Day roster. But as long as he continues to hit, as he gains more experience at different positions in Columbus Francona will not hesitate to grab his switch-hitting super utility guy to fill a hole on the team.