In the past, signing free agent starting pitchers was about who you were necessarily, and not necessarily who you will or even could be. Signing David Price isn’t about turning him into a stud, it’s merely hoping he’ll be a stud for a bit longer. Signing Nathan Eovaldi for $68 million, on the other hand, was about the pitcher he was in the process of becoming and surely could be.
I use that as example not because I think Zack Wheeler will miss all of the 2020 season, but I’m merely pointing out that with league economics turned on its head and teams still technically flush with cash, that money needs to be spent somewhere. If teams are tapped out on international signings and postings are to a relative minimum, and the big heavy-hitters like the Yankees and Dodgers seem to be all-in on Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole, there’s really no other mid-market game in town other than Wheeler.
Wheeler, funnily enough, was trending in this direction from the start. In his original post-draft scouting report, Baseball America wrote that he had “athleticism and solid mechanics,” as well as “excellent arm speed” and a “power breaking ball... [with] late bite and depth.” On those merits alone you could say that’s the reason, per Mark Feinsand, the Phillies will sign Wheeler to a five-year, $100 million deal, but it was certainly a circuitous road to get there.
After being drafted sixth overall by the Giants, and being subsequently flipped to the Mets for a half-season of Carlos Beltran, a surprisingly good player-for-prospect trade by New York, Wheeler made his 2013 debut after being closely monitored innings-wise all the way through 2012. By the end of his first two seasons, he had 285 1⁄3 league average innings under his belt.
That was fine until 2015 struck, when he tore his UCL, kicking off a two-year rehab program that would end not only his 2015 season, but his 2016 season as well. He didn’t end up making another start until April of 2017, and he only lasted 86 1⁄3 innings in that year after he was shut down in July with a stress reaction in his already-much-maligned right arm.
Then, things settled on the right track. Wheeler pitched 29 and 31 respective starts in 2018 and 2019, putting up 9 WARP in the process. He was also doing this with a largely typical repertoire of >50% fastballs. According to Ben Clemens of FanGraphs, he could be the next Gerrit Cole/Justin Verlander/insert souped-up-pitcher here:
“Wheeler excels at the hard work of getting ahead in the count. That’s the difficult part! When he gets there, though, he too often chooses the wrong pitch... Baseball is rarely as easy as throwing more breaking pitches and fewer fastballs. But in Wheeler’s case, despite his blazing heater, it just might be.”
Whether Larry Rothschild and Joe Girardi take advantage of that in Philadelphia is yet to be seen, but suffice it to say that Rothschild led a team in the Yankees that had an incredibly low fastball rate, and whether he agreed with that or not is an open question.
On paper, without modifications, Wheeler instantly makes the Phillies a better squad. He essentially replaces the innings of the aggregate monster that was Jason Vargas/Drew Smyly/Nick Pivetta, so it’s an instant three-win jump on average. If that ticks the team from a projected 85 to 88 wins, that makes all the difference, even if it seems like an “overpay.” And in the days of insured contracts, there are likely monetary incentives for the Phillies to take a chance on a player that is only going to cost a quarter of his salary if he heads down the 2015 path. Yet if Wheeler makes adjustments and continues to stifle criticism with his level of play, it’ll look like a relative bargain.