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.
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.
#WhiteSox’s offer to Wheeler was for MORE than the $118M he will receive from the #Phillies, sources tell The Athletic. As @MarcCarig said, Wheeler’s wife is from New Jersey, and that proximity was an important consideration in his decision.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) December 4, 2019
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.
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.