Zack Wheeler has become the first big-money signing of the 2019/20 hot stove season, and his $118m 5-year contract offers more questions than answers for embattled Phillies fans.
Wheeler, one of the most highly sort after free agents this offseason, will now be paid as the 13th highest starter in the MLB in 2020. Having earned just under $6m in 2019 with the Mets it’s a serious bump in salary for the 30-year-old. Given that just a few days ago the Mets were suggesting Wheeler’s contract could reach $100m it’s significantly north of that. But is he really worth it?
Zack Wheeler: A career in review
Originally coming through with the Mets at the same time as the Four Horseman, Wheeler sat the entire 2015 and 2016 campaigns and threw just 86 big-league innings in 2017.
Prior to his Tommy John injury layoff, Wheeler was one of the hottest prospects in the game. Racking up 187 strikeouts in 185 IP, with an ERA of 3.54 and a WHIP of 1.33 in 2014, Wheeler was on his way to being a dominant pitcher.
Since his comeback in 2018 he has carried a significant workload, with 182.1 IP in 2018, and 195.1 IP last season, showing that he appears to be over the worst effects of his injuries. His control improved dramatically in 2019 with his walks per nine innings dropping to a career-low 2.3, and his strikeouts per nine innings returning to 1.
All of the signs point to him being an elite level pitcher. However, with his injury history, and only 450 IP since his return, there have to be questions about the sustainability of these numbers, and his ability to stay healthy.
The truth of the contract is that it is probably too much money at this point in time. But in three years, if Zack Wheeler stays healthy it will be a steal. If his numbers stay where they are he still improves the Phillies rotation and comes in as the number 3 pitcher.
If he can finally reach his potential he will push, and probably surpass, Aaron Nola as the Phillies top pitcher. His high-end fastball gives him that elite level starter potential.
The problem is that for the money the Phillies have paid out, you would prefer a more guaranteed success. While Wheeler has a high potential ceiling he also has a low potential floor. Any recurrence of the UCL injury could end his career, and even if he were to continue after another year or two rehabbing, he would then be a 32-year-old pitcher with only 3 good years in the bag.
With Stephen Strasburg, and Gerrit Cole yet to be signed, this contract seems way out of the park. This likely increases the price of signing either of those actual aces and maybe that’s the main reason the Phillies have opted for this deal. Realising they were going to be priced out of a move for one of those pitchers, meant they had to land the biggest of the second-tier pitchers.
The White Sox apparently offered more for Zack Wheeler, but he opted to land in Philadelphia. A team in desperate need of pitching help. The pull of last year’s big-ticket free agent Bryce Harper may have helped make the deal more appealing.
And if Wheeler stays healthy, he definitely improves the Phillies playoff chances. However, whether he can be the ace they need to make a genuine run at the world-series is a much harder thread to pull.
Expect the Phillies to continue to be active in the free-agent pitching market as they look to add at least one more high-end starter and fill out the bottom of their rotation. Bullpen help is also likely on the way as they look to remedy the weakness they overlooked in 2019 as they chased Harper.