The Phillies have added a big arm to pair with Aaron Nola atop their starting pitching rotation.
Multiple sources have confirmed that the team has agreed on a five-year, $118 million deal with free-agent right-hander Zack Wheeler.
Wheeler joins Bryce Harper, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Ryan Howard as the only players in Phillies history to receive contracts of $100 million or more.
Wheeler, 29, has been plagued by injuries and inconsistency in his career, but he possesses elite stuff — his 97-mph average velocity was fourth-best in the majors in 2019 — and is seen as a pitcher ready to blossom. The Phillies are banking on it happening with them.
Adding a pitcher who profiles near the top of the rotation was the Phillies’ No. 1 offseason objective, but they still have work to do if they are going to break a postseason drought that has reached eight seasons. Adding an infield bat such as Didi Gregorius is a high-priority item. The Phils are in talks with Gregorius. The team also continues to monitor the market for starting pitching, but probably for more of a low-ticket arm that could add depth.
In addition to a big fastball, Wheeler has excellent breaking stuff. He was the No. 6 overall pick by San Francisco in the 2009 draft. He was traded to the Mets two years later for Carlos Beltran, who is now the Mets manager. Wheeler is 44-38 with a 3.77 ERA in 126 career big-league starts. He will turn 30 in May.
Like all pitchers on long-term, big-money contracts, Wheeler comes with risk. He missed significant time recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2015 and 2016. He spent time on the injured list in 2017 and was briefly sidelined in 2019 with what was called shoulder fatigue. He rebounded quickly and was able to make 31 starts, but his health history can't be ignored. Still, this was a move that the Phillies, in win-now mode and desperate for starting pitching, had to make. When the dust settles on this free-agent winter, Wheeler’s contract could pale in comparison to what Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg get.
Obviously, Cole and Strasburg are much more accomplished pitchers than Wheeler, but many evaluators see Wheeler as an ascending talent. He has been mostly healthy the last two seasons, going 23-15 with a 3.65 ERA in 60 starts for the Mets. He has pitched 182 1/3 and 195 1/3 innings, respectively, the last two seasons, a good sign after struggling with injuries early in his career.
Wheeler has gotten stronger as the last two seasons have progressed. He went 14-3 with a 2.26 ERA after the All-Star break the last two seasons. The Phillies, who have suffered big collapses the last two Septembers, could benefit from Wheeler's second-half prowess. He will join Nola, Jake Arrieta and Zach Eflin in an evolving starting rotation that could also include someone already in the organization or a low-profile addition in the coming weeks.
Wheeler chose the Phillies over the Chicago White Sox. The Sox reportedly had more money on the table. Wheeler, who hails from Georgia, has family in New Jersey and that certainly did not hurt the Phillies' cause.
The Mets had extended Wheeler a $17.8 million qualifying offer for 2020 so the Phillies will forfeit their second pick in the June draft for signing him. The Phils have a new scouting director — former Yankees scout Brian Barber — and want to build through the draft. Forfeiting high-round draft picks is not conducive to that. But this was a price the Phils had to pay to address their need for pitching at the big-league level.
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