Phillies

Stephen Strasburg or Gerrit Cole? Phillies' path to an ace opens up

Stephen Strasburg or Gerrit Cole? Phillies' path to an ace opens up

Hours after the Nationals' parade Saturday afternoon, World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg opted out of the remaining four years of his contract, NBC Sports Washington's Todd Dybas confirms.

It was not a surprising move, though it would have been six months ago. The final four years of Strasburg's deal with Washington were set to pay him $100 million — $25 million in 2020, $15 million in 2021, $15 million in 2022, $45 million in 2023.

That $45 million salary in the final year was designed to entice Strasburg to let the contract play out. But he had such an amazing season in 2019 that he's now in a position to earn much more than $100 million moving forward. 

Even at 31 years old, Strasburg could be in line for a five-year deal. Everything fell into place for him this season. He was the healthiest he's ever been. He got better as the season progressed. After leading the National League in innings pitched, he was one of the only starting pitchers this postseason to maintain or exceed that production. He pitched 36⅓ innings in the 2019 playoffs and went 5-0 with a 1.98 ERA and nine times as many strikeouts as walks. No pitcher before Strasburg ever went 5-0 in a single postseason, though there are obviously more playoff rounds now than there were for the vast majority of baseball's existence.

Strasburg instantly becomes the second-best pitcher on the free-agent market, behind Gerrit Cole and ahead of Zack Wheeler. Strasburg is two years and two months older than Cole, is not quite as good and has a more significant injury history. Thus, Cole is still likely to sign the much larger contract. Cole could receive $300 million. Strasburg's guarantee might be half of that.

The Phillies couldn't go wrong with either pitcher. That's true of any team in baseball. Cole would be the No. 1 starter on 30 teams and Strasburg would be the No. 1 for about 25, including the Phillies.

It's hard to say which pitcher will be the more shrewd investment. Cole is younger and better but may cost twice as much. Does the price difference offset Cole's superiority?

An interesting dynamic this offseason is that both Cole and Strasburg are Scott Boras clients. So, too, is Anthony Rendon. It will be another fun winter for Boras, who controls even more of free agency than usual this winter. 

The biggest question teams will have to ask themselves about Strasburg this offseason is whether he can be trusted to stay as healthy as he did in 2019 for the bulk of his next contract. The team that signs him will be paying for his early-and-mid-30s seasons, notoriously the years in which a starting pitcher slows down. Strasburg had a 3.28 ERA the last five seasons and averaged 26 starts per year. It would be illogical at worst, optimistic at best to expect him to maintain both numbers over the next five.

And yet still, you look at what the Patrick Corbin signing meant to the 2019 Nationals, you look at what it means to have actual thoroughbreds in October and you wonder whether Years 4 and 5 of Strasburg's mega-deal should even matter to a team with win-now aspirations. Even if Corbin were to miss two full seasons over the remainder of his deal, that deal was a win for the Nationals. They won the World Series.

The Phillies will pursue Cole. They will pursue Strasburg. They will pursue Wheeler. They will almost certainly look into a Cole Hamels reunion. They will leave no stone unturned in their quest to substantially boost the starting rotation. With one more ace now on the market, their chances of achieving that upgrade are stronger. Get ready for another fun, rumor-filled Phillies offseason.

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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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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.

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