Phillies

Manny Machado? Bryce Harper? Who gets the next ride on Air Middleton?

Manny Machado? Bryce Harper? Who gets the next ride on Air Middleton?

CLEARWATER, Fla. — By now, you’ve seen the video.

And if Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, Josh Donaldson and others have seen it, too … well, the Phillies are happy for the little bit of attention.

The Phils are back in the free-agent game. They announced their presence not only by signing Jake Arrieta to a three-year, $75 million contract on Monday, but also with how they transported and welcomed the pitcher to spring training.

Arrieta had a physical in Philadelphia on Monday. Upon completion, he was driven to Philadelphia International Airport, where owner John Middleton’s private jet — adorned with the Phillies’ red P on the tail — awaited. Arrieta and one of his representatives then flew to Florida's East Coast, picked up Middleton and his wife, Leigh, and jetted across the state to St. Petersburg, where four Phillies executives, including club president Andy MacPhail and general manager Matt Klentak, waited on the tarmac to greet the pitcher. The entire event was captured Hollywood-style by two team videographers and posted on social media. It was an idea that Middleton and Phillies vice president of communications Bonnie Clark came up with. And if it all sent a message, then fine.

“I want people to understand that we’re going to do things in the best way we can possibly do it — first class,” Middleton said after Arrieta’s introductory news conference Tuesday (more from that here).

“It’s a message to everybody, not just free agents. I want everybody in our organization to understand what our mission is and how we're supposed to go about it. I want the players on our roster not named Jake Arrieta to understand what our mission is, our coaches, front office, our fans, other organizations. We’re serious about winning and we’re going to do what it takes to win.”

Rides on fancy private jets don’t win games. But the guys who win games for teams do like that stuff. Just ask Arrieta's agent, Scott Boras.

“Sometimes organizations want to portray to the player community things that are important to players,” said Boras, who spent time schmoozing with Middleton after the news conference. “Jake goes to Philadelphia for a physical and the Middleton family has its plane waiting to take him down here. A lot of organizations don’t do that. He arrives down here and everyone from the staff is there late at night to meet him. That says a lot about how sensitive they are to player needs and what’s important to players. When you respect players like that — those are things that will ring true to players about how they want to be treated and how they are respected in addition to the competitive nature of the team.”

From upgrades to player facilities at Citizens Bank Park and in Clearwater to technology and other player-improvement equipment, “We’re going to give you all the tools you need to win,” Middleton said. “You’re going to have to take advantage of them because we’re going to have high expectations.”

Arrieta will make $30 million this season, $25 million in 2019 and $20 million in 2020. Middleton encouraged Klentak to go to $30 million this season to recognize Arrieta’s elite status. That’s part of the free-agent game — respect and messages of respect that resonate all around the game.

Middleton said he had circled Arrieta’s name as a potential free-agent target years ago.

Who gets the next ride on Air Middleton?

“That’s a conversation for another day,” the Phillies owner said. “But, trust me, they are circled.”

Zack Wheeler's floor a huge boost for Phillies, but that ceiling ...

Zack Wheeler's floor a huge boost for Phillies, but that ceiling ...

For long stretches in each of the last two seasons, Zack Wheeler was every bit as effective as Aaron Nola.

Wheeler had four terrific months in 2018, posting a 2.52 ERA over his final 20 starts beginning on June 1.

In 2019, he found his groove right around midseason, pitching to a 3.04 ERA over his final 16 starts.

When you hear the phrase "untapped potential" in relation to Wheeler, this is what it means. It means that if he can pitch like this a bit more consistently — four good months instead of two — he can be a legitimate ace.

If he can't? Well then, if you trust his stuff and his results the last two years, you're getting no worse than a low-end No. 2 starter. Wheeler has made 60 starts the last two seasons with a 3.65 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, a strikeout per inning and less than a home run per nine.

Those numbers might not jump off the page, but they are impressive when you consider the surge in home runs in 2019 and especially so when considering his workload.

Wheeler is one of only 12 pitchers to reach 375 combined innings the last two seasons. The others are Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, Aaron Nola, Patrick Corbin, Trevor Bauer, Jose Berrios, Miles Mikolas and Mike Leake.

In 2019, Wheeler made 18 quality starts (at least six innings with three earned runs or fewer). Nola also made 18. Zach Eflin had 14, Jake Arrieta had 10 and no other Phillie was in double-digits.

When Nola did not start a game for the Phillies in 2019, they received a quality start 31 percent of the time — less than once every three games.

Wheeler obviously helps with that. Think back to late last season when the Phillies could generate no momentum and had such a smaller chance to win when anyone was on the mound other than their ace. Wheeler changes that. He offers more of a chance for series wins, sweeps, actual winning streaks.

He also brings velocity, something the Phillies' rotation has sorely lacked for years. Wheeler's four-seam fastball averaged a career-best 96.7 mph last season, fourth-fastest in the majors behind Noah Syndergaard, Cole and deGrom.

The Phillies have never had a starting pitcher throw at least 100 innings in a season and average better than 95 mph with his fastball. Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez came the closest. Wheeler has done it comfortably in back-to-back seasons.

Velocity is not the only thing, especially these days when so many have it, but it is obviously still a major part of missing bats and getting outs. Because Wheeler has 3 or 4 mph more on his fastball than Nola, and because he can locate significantly better than Pivetta or Velasquez, he offers the Phillies' rotation a different, much-needed look.

This is not to say Wheeler comes without flaws or concerns. He hasn't yet ripped off a string of strong seasons. Two is a start and the Phillies are banking on it continuing.

He hasn't been a Top 10 Cy Young finisher, though he should have been in '18.

He's never reached 200 innings in a season, though some of that was because of caution the Mets exercised with him.

And Wheeler, despite the velo, has gone through plenty of multi-start stretches where he's been hit hard and doesn't miss many bats, in a way you don't see with the tippy-top guys like Scherzer and deGrom (which Wheeler is not).

He had three starts in a row like that last August and two straight in June.

But Wheeler is as capable of 7 innings, 1 run, 11 strikeouts as any pitcher in either league. When he's on, he can be so, so good. He went at least seven innings 15 times last season and allowed one or no runs in seven of them.

This one addition will not boost the Phillies to 90 wins, but it's the first giant step to another critical offseason.



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At the Yard podcast: Reacting to the huge Zack Wheeler news

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NBCSP

At the Yard podcast: Reacting to the huge Zack Wheeler news

Ricky Bottalico and Corey Seidman react to the big news of the Phillies agreeing to a five-year deal with Zack Wheeler on the latest At The Yard podcast.

They also discuss the possibility of the Phillies signing Didi Gregorius, Cole Hamels heading to the Braves, and much more.

• Initial impressions of the signing
• What the guys like most about Wheeler
• Was this the right price?
• Bittersweet day with Hamels to Braves
• Phillies still need to add another good SP
• One Wheeler concern
• The market for Anthony Rendon



Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Phillies