Phillies

Phillies sign free agent Zack Wheeler to 5-year deal

Phillies sign free agent Zack Wheeler to 5-year deal

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.

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

MLB rule changes 2020: Phillies most affected by the new 3-batter rule

MLB rule changes 2020: Phillies most affected by the new 3-batter rule

MLB's new three-batter rule for relievers should have a fairly significant impact on the way managers manage and pitching coaches handle their bullpens.

To review, the new rule is that a pitcher entering after the starting pitcher must face at least three batters or pitch to the end of the current inning. So, for example, if Adam Morgan comes in with two on and two outs in the sixth inning and gets the third out, he does not need to come back out for the seventh.

This rule will obviously most affect relief specialists. Let's use Jose Alvarez as an example. Last season, Alvarez was one of the few Phillies pitchers who didn't take a step back from the prior year. He had a 3.36 ERA in 67 appearances. In 14 of those appearances, Alvarez faced one or two batters. It's why he amassed just 59 innings in those 67 appearances.

As best as they could, the Phillies tried to avoid having Alvarez face right-handed hitters. But it still happened frequently because there are more righties than lefties and because other teams routinely try to gain the platoon advantage by pinch-hitting.

Lefties hit just .236 with a .277 on-base percentage and .382 slugging percentage vs. Alvarez in 2019. Righties hit .328/.385/.475. 

An actual example

To find an example of the type of appearance we'll no longer see, let's go back to last June 15, a 6-5 Phillies win in Atlanta. In that game, Alvarez came on with runners on first and second and two outs in the bottom of the seventh to face left-handed hitting Nick Markakis. He struck him out looking to end the inning.

This season, Joe Girardi and Bryan Price may be leery of bringing in Alvarez in that spot. The next two hitters were right-handed Austin Riley and switch-hitting Ozzie Albies, who was one of the best hitters in baseball last season against lefties (.389/.414/.685). The upside of ending the inning at Markakis may not be worth having to potentially use the lefty Alvarez against Riley and Albies. 

Risk vs. reward

Managers and pitching coaches will have to constantly weigh whether the platoon advantage against a specific player (Markakis in this case) is worth the subsequent disadvantage if the inning doesn't end. You're always going to want a lefty facing Freddie Freeman, but you may be able to get away with keeping your right-handed pitcher in to face Markakis in that instance above.

Recently signed Francisco Liriano could be better equipped to deal with this rule change. While he's been much better against lefties throughout his career, he's also had some success against righties because of the effectiveness of his changeup. His career splits: .218/.296/.305 from lefties and .249/.335/.399 from righties. That follows closely with how he performed against righties last season as well.

Morgan should be relatively unaffected — when he's been successful it has been against hitters from both sides, not just lefties.

Righties could feel it, too

The rule change doesn't end with southpaws, though. While the left vs. left matchup traditionally is harder on the hitter than right vs. right, some right-handed relievers will feel this too.

Vince Velasquez, for example, could play a key relief role for the Phillies. Throughout his career, Velasquez has allowed left-handed hitters a batting average 24 points higher than righties and an OPS 67 points higher. Maybe you want Velasquez coming in to face Marcell Ozuna, who is 3 for 20 lifetime off of him, but you're going to hesitate if Markakis (9 for 22 with a double and four walks) is lingering on deck.

How 'bout the hitters?

On the flip side, this could benefit a few Phillies hitters. We don't yet know how the Phils are going to construct their lineup, but you'd think that Bryce Harper will be followed by right-handed Rhys Hoskins and J.T. Realmuto. Harper was so good against lefties last season (.283 BA, .949 OPS, 15 HR) that teams in 2020 may opt to just use a right-hander against those three hitters. Why bring in a lefty who may not retire Harper anyway just to be forced to use that lefty against Hoskins and Realmuto?

Faster pace of play

It's unclear exactly how managers will adapt to the new three-batter rule but it is clear that it will shorten games. Think about all the innings last season — particularly in September — when three or four different pitchers were used. That's about 10 minutes right there of just pitching changes, factoring in the time it takes a manager to walk to the mound and the time it takes the new reliever to get to the mound and complete his warmups.

This should also create more offense, too, since there will be fewer platoon-based matchups late in games. If MLB goes away from golf balls and goes back to actual baseballs that don't turn 50 percent of the league into 20-home-run hitters, that extra offense should be a positive as well.

Subscribe and rate At The Yard:
Apple Podcasts / Google Play / Spotify / Stitcher / Art19

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

At the Yard podcast: 3-batter rule, DH dynamic, NL East predictions

at_the_yard_fullscreen.jpg
NBCSP

At the Yard podcast: 3-batter rule, DH dynamic, NL East predictions

Ricky Bottalico and Corey Seidman discuss one big rule change, another on the horizon, and make their NL East predictions in the latest At the Yard podcast.

• How does the new 3-batter rule for relievers change their mentality?

• Which Phillies relievers does it affect the most?

• If the DH does come to the National League in the next two years, how would it help the Phillies?

• Both guys are still vehemently anti-DH.

• Fan Q&A.

• NL East win total predictions.

Subscribe and rate At The Yard:
Apple Podcasts / Google Play / Spotify / Stitcher / Art19