The Philadelphia Phillies have made their first move of the offseason. As first reported by The Athletic’s Marc Craig, the Phillies signed former Met Zack Wheeler to a five year, $118M contract.
What The Phillies Are Getting
We detailed Wheeler as part of our Stupid Money 2 series, but we’ll recap here.
Wheeler will turn 30 this season. He was 11-8 with a 3.96 ERA over 195 1/3 innings for the New York Mets in 2019. He was especially strong in the second half, going 5-2 with a 2.83 ERA over 76 1/3 innings. Wheeler’s September was particularly impressive, going 2-1 with a 1.85 ERA in five starts.
Wheeler is among the top starters in the league when it comes to average velocity, averaging just a hair under 97 MPH on his four seam fastball. This kind of heat is something the Phillies pitching staff sorely lacked in 2019.
Wheeler’s talent and potential is clear. But, part of the reason he was a free agent was due to his inconsistencies and injuries over his career.
The right hander had Tommy John surgery in March of 2015 and missed most of the 2016 season and was shut down again in September of 2016 with a mild flexor strain in his right elbow. He once again missed time in 2017 with a stress reaction in his right arm. Finally, he missed some time in 2019 with what was called “shoulder fatigue.”
Even some of Wheeler’s biggest fans would agree giving him $118M is risky. His old injuries could flare up, or he could go back to being inconsistent. But, Wheeler is a risk the Phillies needed to take.
The Phillies are desperate for top tier pitching. That’s no secret. They dropped the ball last offseason and failed to improve their starting pitching. They were in on Patrick Corbin but were among the teams who refused to give him the sixth year he desired. He then went to the Nats and had an outstanding season en route to a World Series championship.
Corbin and Wheeler are not too different. Both faced injuries and inconsistency in their early careers. They both have talent and produced in their walk years. Both are/were viewed as potentially ascending players when they hit the open market. The Phillies let one go. They couldn’t afford to lose two.
In essence, by not giving Corbin that sixth year, the Phillies backed themselves into a corner in regards to Wheeler. They desperately needed a top tier starter to pair with Aaron Nola. They didn’t take the risk with Corbin, and they were burned. Wheeler might not be as good as Corbin, but the Phillies couldn’t let another relatively young upper tier starter go by the wayside.
Of course, the Phillies will still be linked to Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg. Both of those pitchers are better than Wheeler, but they come with much higher price tags. The Phils have other holes that need to be filled. They need to spread their money around to fill those holes if they want to make the leap back into serious contention, especially if they want to stay under the luxury tax. Staying under the tax might not be possible however, as Fangraphs currently has them about $16M under and they still need, at minimum, another pitcher, a third baseman, and a reliever.
Wheeler at worst gives the Phillies a good number 2 starter to slot behind Nola. At best, new pitching coach Bryan Price unlocks Wheeler’s untapped potential and he becomes the top tier starter he has the ability and talent to become. The price was higher than expected, but it will pale in comparison to what Gerrit Cole and Strasburg make this offseason.
Speaking of those two, the acquisition of Wheeler obviously affects the Phillies’ pursuit of them. They are up against the tax with more holes to fill, plus a J.T. Realmuto extension on the horizon. They will almost have to go over this season to fill their holes unless they get creative. Just how much they go over is the real question.
The contracts of Jake Arrieta, David Robertson, and others come off of the books next year. That gives them more flexibility for the future even if they go over this year. Wheeler still probably puts them out of the Cole sweepstakes, but Strasburg is not necessarily out of the question.
Wheeler is a good start to the offseason. However, there is much more work to be done between now and Spring Training. The Phillies still need another starter. To be determined if they look for a backend starter or they decide to try for something more.