After all, the fact that he wasn't even with an affiliated Minor League franchise could have limited his exposure and make it more difficult for scouts to find him or even consider him if they did. But Phelps has faced greater odds before and come out ahead. You see, Phelps has the distinction of being the lowest drafted player to reach the Major Leagues. After overcoming that obstacle, the prospect of having to spend a few weeks in southwest New Jersey didn't seem so bad.
Phelps was an 89th-round draft pick, 1,719th overall, by Tampa Bay in 1996 out of Crowder Junior College in Missouri. At the time of his selection, no one, not even Phelps, envisioned the road he would travel. But after spending two seasons in Tampa Bay and part of a third in Milwaukee, Phelps was out to prove that his journey won't end along the Delaware River.
On Thursday, he took a step toward returning to the bigs, returning to the Brewers organization, which assigned him to Double-A Hunstville.
"I actually do think I'm in kind of the same situation now as when I got drafted," said Phelps before signing with Milwaukee. "When you get picked that way, you know your back is against the wall. Every time you go out there, you have something to prove. If you don't prove something, you're gone. And you can't take anything lightly because you know you're going to have to go out there every day like that just in order to have another chance."
Phelps, who was released by Cincinnati this year on the last day of Spring Training, last pitched in the Major Leagues in 2004, appearing in four games for the Brewers. He signed as free agent with Colorado that winter but struggled through Spring Training in 2005 and after appearing in seven games for Colorado Springs of the Pacific Coast League, the Rockies decided to release him. Phelps was picked up by the Cubs and saw action in 18 games for Iowa, also in the PCL, before he got caught up in a numbers game and was once again released.
When the Reds signed him last summer, he seemed to have found a home, appearing in 16 games for Louisville of the International League. Despite going 2-0 in three Spring Training games, Phelps only threw five official innings and had a 7.20 ERA when he was released.
"They said they didn't have room for me," said Phelps, who is 3-5 with a 4.34 ERA in 79 Major League appearances. "Everyone's roster was full, so now I'm just waiting around trying to get picked up. Getting released was frustrating, but you have to keep playing. You just can't sit at home and wait for someone to call.
"I've been able to keep a good frame of mind. I love the game and I love to play. Obviously the pay isn't as good but I'm able to help some of our younger players and give them some tips."
When the Devil Rays drafted Phelps after his freshman year of college, they did so despite his asking them not to make the selection. He said he laughed when he was picked and that he was truly surprised by the move. Phelps intended on going back to school for his sophomore season, where he ended up having a strong year. As a result, interest in him increased and the possibility of getting drafted higher by another team was good.
But Phelps opted to sign with Tampa Bay just before the draft, collecting a modest $50,000 bonus. His rationale was that the Devil Rays were an expansion team and the likelihood of him getting a chance was greater than had he signed with a more established organization.
"High draft picks are always going to get more opportunities," Phelps said. "It was a strange feeling when I signed. I didn't know how to feel. I was excited but I was laughing. And when I made it the Major Leagues I had a good rookie campaign [2-2, 3.48 in 49 games in 2001]. But I knew when I came back in 2002 I'd have to prove myself all over again.
"I pitched well that Spring Training, I think I gave up only one run. But sometimes things happen and they had guys they wanted to look at from Triple-A so I shuttled back and forth and didn't get the opportunity. So now this is where I am, trying to work my way back."
Phelps said he isn't at a point where he's thinking about retiring. If supporting his family becomes an issue, then it's something that he'll sit down and discuss with his wife.
"The one thing about baseball is that you never know what's going to happen from day-to-day," Phelps said. "Look at Ken Ray with the Braves [who's back in the Major Leagues after a six-year absence]. Look what he's done. If anything is going to give someone hope, that will. Maybe one day it clicks and everything falls into place."