According to Ken Rosenthal and Jeff Passan, free agent Zack Wheeler has agreed terms to a five year, $118 million dollar contract, with a $23.6 million AAV.
For Phillies fans, Santa has come early. Wheeler is a huge addition by Matt Klentak and company, as the Phillies push to make the playoffs. Wheeler is a much better pitcher than anyone the Phillies have had since Aaron Nola.
Here is exactly what I wrote regarding Wheeler in my offseason preview article which recently dropped.
Zack Wheeler: 195.1 IP, 3.96 ERA, 8.98 K/9, 4.7 fWAR
Just like Strasburg, a Wheeler signing is not only a win for the Phillies, but a loss for the Mets. Ideally, Wheeler would slot in as a good number 3 starter, but unless Klentak pulls off another move for a big starting pitcher, Philadelphia is not afforded that luxury. Maybe Girardi and Price push the right buttons, as he has ace quality stuff, but even just staying at his career norms would be a huge addition. Wheeler is the single player who makes the absolute most sense for the Phillies this off-season, but as other teams talk themselves out of the Cole/Strasburg price tag, Wheeler is the next best option. There will be a lot of other suitors. The Phils should be all over Wheeler at $20-25 million AAV over 4 years.
As I alluded to previously, Wheeler is not worth just the 4.2 and 4.7 fWAR he has accumulated the past two years to the Phillies. The Phillies also need their divisional opponents in the NL East to get worse. This move directly hurts the Mets and helps the Phillies, a swing of about eight wins. Unfortunately the Braves aren’t necessarily complying after securing former Phillie, my beloved Cole Hamels. Signing Wheeler was important as the Phillies options are still wide open in the quickly developing market. Including Wheeler’s $23.6 million AAV, the Phillies still have just over $23 million before hitting the luxury tax line, but that shouldn’t act as a hard cap. The Phillies, as a first time tax offender, would pay an additional 20% with no draft pick penalty up to $40 million over. With over $50 million in deadweight expiring contracts, the Phillies and Middleton should not hesitate to go over the luxury tax for 2020. Zack Wheeler looks great as the team’s number 3 starter, but would be just fine as the number 2.
This is where Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg come into account. The consensus top two starters on the free agent market would still be attainable under the Phillies budget and may be what the club needs to push them over the hump into October baseball. Signing either of these guys takes a poor rotation into one of the best in baseball. Cole is definitely the better player, but for the Phillies sake, I would prefer Strasburg. Just like with Wheeler, the addition of Strasburg, a 5 win player, is really a 10 win swing for Philly. Signing Strasburg makes the Nationals worse and the Phillies significantly better. Strasburg will also come anywhere between $80-120 million cheaper paving the way for infield help (see: Didi Gregorius), bullpen help, or the inevitable J.T. Realmuto extension later this off-season. Taking Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, the two faces of your division rival and world series champions, in back-to-back offseasons would likely be one of the biggest power moves in sports history.
Now, more on Zack Wheeler, the baseball player. Wheeler is durable, as he has started 60 games over the past two seasons. Wheeler is a hard thrower with filthy off-speed stuff, as he threw 111 pitches over 97 mph in 2019, compared to just 40 for the entire Phillies rotation combined. Wheeler has had a 3.31 ERA/3.25 FIP and a 3.96 ERA/3.48 FIP in the past two years, and in 2019, Wheeler had a K% of 23.6%. Wheeler is a great pitcher as is, but with a little improvement, he can turn into a bonafide ace, which could be a steal, even at his new $118 million contract. The Phillies are hopeful that Joe Girardi, Bryan Price, and Realmuto can further improve the former New York Met. With a two strike count, Wheeler threw a fastball 55.9% of the time, but he did a relatively poor job at elevating those fastballs. Per Ben Clemens of Fangraphs, the simple solution would be to throw his best off-speed pitch, the slider in these counts. If Wheeler can just improve his two strike counts in 2020, by throwing more sliders and elevating the fastball more, he could turn from a good pitcher into a great one.