MIAMI -- Questions remain as the Marlins go about assembling what they hope becomes a "super bullpen." In its search for experienced relievers, the team reached a two-year deal with 30-year-old righty Junichi Tazawa, a source told MLB.com on Thursday night -- a deal pending a physical and yet to be confirmed by the club. But after missing out on signing either Aroldis Chapman or Kenley Jansen, the organization has made one thing clear regarding a returning player -- David Phelps will remain in the 'pen.
How best to use Phelps, one of the team's best overall pitchers in 2016, has been up in the air. The 30-year-old right-hander offers plenty of versatility, because he has been a starter and a reliever.
"We feel like he can affect more games out of the 'pen," manager Don Mattingly said. "He gives us -- I don't want to say poor man's -- but an Andrew Miller-type [reliever]. He's a guy that can close a game out for you. He can pitch in the eighth, multiple innings."
In 2016, Phelps was 7-6 with a 2.28 ERA in 64 games (five starts). He struck out 114 and held opponents to a batting average of .197 over 86 2/3 innings.
The Marlins continue to explore starting-pitching options, but they do have a starting five after signing free-agent left-hander Jeff Locke at the Winter Meetings. Earlier in the month, right-hander Edinson Volquez signed for two years. Those two additions free Phelps to stay in the bullpen.
Aside from Tazawa, Miami is targeting free-agent relievers, like Brad Ziegler and Neftali Feliz. Because a deal with a free agent is preferred to making a trade, Miami is not likely to pursue White Sox closer David Robertson, a former teammate of Phelps with the Yankees.
Phelps enjoyed a terrific bounce-back 2016 after he sustained a season-ending stress fracture to his right forearm midway through August 2015. In '15, Phelps was 4-8 with a 4.50 ERA in 23 appearances (19 starts).
Coming out of the 'pen in 2016, Phelps threw harder in shorter stints. His four-seam fastball average, per Statcast™, was 94.37 mph, above the MLB average of 93.04.
The increased velocity factored into more missed bats. Of his 579 four-seam fastballs, Phelps had 75 swings and misses (13 percent). In 2015, he threw 544 four-seam fastballs, missing 29 bats (5 percent). Phelps also was more economical with his pitches. Along with being more effective, he also threw fewer pitches in 2016 than the year before -- 1,497 compared to 1,858 -- yet he was a factor in more games.
The Marlins intended to keep Phelps entirely in the bullpen entering last season, but injuries resulted in him moving into the rotation in late August. The switch also had an added risk, because Phelps went on the disabled list due to a left oblique strain he incurred while taking batting practice.
Pitching primarily in relief means Phelps won't be asked to hit very often.
"When we put him in the rotation, he was able to give quality innings there," Mattingly said. "With the way we are, with the loss of Jose and where our rotation is and where we're at, we feel like David is going to best serve us out of the 'pen.
"That could still change. Injuries, anything that happens. But his flexibility and durability, and what he was able to show last year, we thought was best suited for us in the 'pen."
Joe Frisaro has covered the Marlins for MLB.com since 2002. He writes a blog, called The Fish Pond. Follow him on Twitter @JoeFrisaro and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.