The Phillies Get a New Set of Wheels

The indefatigable Ken “Robothal” Rosenthal reported Wednesday afternoon that Zack Wheeler had agreed with the Philadelphia Phillies on a five-year contract. Reportedly worth $118 million in guaranteed salary, Wheeler will remain in Philadelphia through the end of the 2024 season, barring a trade.

In my Elegy for ’19 article talking about the Phillies, when discussing the future, my hope was that the team would continue pushing forward financially. While it would seem unlikely that Philadelphia would suddenly become overly thrifty, the club would be far from the first contender to suddenly get nervous about nearing the luxury tax threshold.

Wheeler was always expected to be a top starter. A first-round pick for the Giants in 2009, he was traded to the Mets at the 2011 trade deadline straight-up for Carlos Beltran. Wheeler had little trouble adjusting to the majors, putting up FIPs of 4.17 and 3.55 in 2013 and ’14 over 49 starts for the Mets. Doesn’t it feel a bit odd that a 3.55 FIP was just a little better than league-average as recently as 2014?

During spring training in 2015, Wheeler was diagnosed with a torn UCL, resulting in Tommy John surgery that cost him the entire season. Arm soreness during his rehab in 2016 delayed Wheeler’s comeback with the Mets until the next year. It wasn’t until 2018 that Wheeler really appeared to be picking up where he left off, throwing 182.1 innings with a 3.31 ERA/3.25 FIP, enough for 4.2 WAR. Last year featured much of the same good stuff, with Wheeler’s .311 BABIP likely being partially the fault of an unimpressive Mets defense. Perhaps most importantly, 2019 put Wheeler’s 2 1/2 lost years more comfortably in the rear-view mirror, something important for a team making a significant contract commitment.

The Phillies will likely slot Wheeler in behind Aaron Nola, providing a significant boost for a rotation that is currently ranked 21st in baseball on our depth charts. Among teams that were serious playoff contenders in 2019, only the Twins have a worse projection for the starting rotation than the Phillies. Further complicating the starting situation in Philly is that Jake Arrieta’s elbow is still a bit of a question mark, despite the belief that he’ll be recovered from his bone spur removal in time to have a normal spring training.

Wheeler gives the Phillies more flexibility by not needing all of Zach Eflin, Vince Velasquez, and Nick Pivetta succeeding in 2020. Wheeler shouldn’t prevent the Phillies from going after another starting pitcher as well, with the team still having roughly $40 million in payroll room before they hit the second luxury tax threshold at $228 million. While this might make the team signing Gerrit Cole a bit of a long shot, especially given other needs, someone like Michael Pineda or Tanner Roark ought to still be a possibility.

Preliminary ZiPS Projections – Zack Wheeler
Year W L ERA G GS IP H HR BB SO ERA+ WAR
2020 10 8 3.98 29 29 178.7 172 22 51 172 109 2.9
2021 9 7 3.89 26 26 159.7 153 19 45 153 112 2.8
2022 9 7 4.00 26 26 157.3 153 19 45 147 109 2.5
2023 8 7 4.00 24 24 146.3 143 18 42 137 109 2.4
2024 8 6 4.14 22 22 137.0 135 18 40 129 105 2.0

Even though it’s near what Steamer has for Wheeler, I find the ZiPS projection for him a little grumpy for my tastes. My colleague Ben Clemens wrote about Wheeler’s upside last month, and I have similar feelings. It does feel like with Wheeler’s deep and varied repertoire, he could be a 10-or-11-strikeouts-per-game pitcher. Projections are conservative for pitchers given the downside of injury risk, but I think Wheeler has a higher ceiling than the projection system thinks.

Meanwhile, losing out on Wheeler is disappointing for the White Sox. One of the things holding the team back from finally turning around that rebuilding corner is the lack of dependability in the starting rotation. The club had three significant Tommy John setbacks last offseason, and even with Lucas Giolito likely being mostly for real, the starting pitching is unlikely to be competitive with the better rotations in the league. The Indians aren’t dead yet, and while the Twins have their own rotation problems, Minnesota’s offense is solid at most positions. I’m hoping the White Sox are serious bidders for Cole or Stephen Strasburg because there are few pitchers available in free agency that are truly potential difference-makers.

Nothing really changes for the Mets with this signing, as I don’t believe they were ever serious contenders to retain Wheeler once he hit free agency. The team’s rotation still looks strong, but a deGrom/Syndergaard/Wheeler/Stroman/Matz front five would, I feel, pretty clearly have been the best projected rotation in baseball coming into the season. The Mets now need to pay or replace Wheeler, Marcus Stroman, and Noah Syndergaard in consecutive offseasons.

This was a necessary signing for the Phillies, but probably not sufficient by itself to put the Phillies on the level with the Braves, especially considering the latter’s short-term deal with Cole Hamels on the same day.

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Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Ryan21
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Ryan21

Wheeler’s deal is obviously more than outlets like Fangraphs or MLBTR predicted. But last year, we saw Patrick Corbin get 6 years and $140 million as a 29-year old starting pitcher with a TJ surgery in his past who had put up 8.9 fWAR over his last two seasons. Zack Wheeler is . . . a 29-year old starting pitcher with a TJ surgery in his past who has put up 8.9 fWAR over his last two seasons. That Wheeler would get 5 years and $118 million seems downright reasonable. Good for the Phillies in pushing to improve.

Wilmerrr
Member
Wilmerrr

That’s nice, but Corbin had xFIP- of 64 and 90 in the previous two years, whereas Wheeler had just 92 and 94. I see no reason to use FIP-based WAR as a predictor, since it credits pitchers for HR/FB, which is an extremely volatile stat. Wheeler’s HR/FB in 2018 and 2019 are likely not close to sustainable. Plus, didn’t Corbin’s contract also exceed expectations relative to the rest of the market in that year? I remember $140 million seeming steep at the time.

Based on both Steamer and ZiPS, this is an overpay. And the reality could, in fact, be that this deal is an overpay. Or the projection systems could be wrong, and teams could know something about Wheeler that we don’t (Higher K upside? Contact management ability?). The free agent market could also be different this year than in the past couple of offseasons. We have seen Abreu and Moustakas sign for surprising sums, after all, and Bumgarner supposedly may be pushing $100 million in his contract negotiations. Then again, it seemed like teams were cheaping out with some of the recent non-tender decisions. So I don’t know.

frangipard
Member
frangipard

Yeah, but what are the odds of his HR/FB rate regressing in that Philly ballpark?

/sarc

frank
Member
frank

“The free agent market could also be different this year than in the past couple of offseasons. ”

This.

TKDC
Member
Member
TKDC

1. Corbin’s deal seemed like one of the best outcomes from a player perspective last year.
2. The success in the immediately preceding was much greater for Corbin.