There’s no replacing Gerrit Cole, but the Houston Astros can continue doing what they do best this offseason: embark on a reclamation project. And their next project could be right-hander Zack Wheeler.
With Cole poised to receive an earth-shattering contract in free agency, the Astros are likely letting the hard-throwing right-hander walk. The other aspect of such a decision is Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke being under contract for $32-33 million apiece through 2021. Consequently, the Astros need to add a starting pitcher.
Now, Verlander and Greinke are a stellar pitching duo and the return of right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. — who missed the 2019 season with a elbow injury — puts Houston’s starting rotation in great shape for 2020. At the same time, the American League pennant winners won’t be as formidable without Cole, who was arguably the best pitcher in Major League Baseball last season. Left-hander Wade Miley, who recorded a 3.98 ERA across 33 starts last season, is also a free agent.
The New York Yankees (103-59) and Minnesota Twins (101-61) are surely looking to beef up their rosters this offseason. The Astros must counter, especially since they’re trying to win as many championships as possible with the likes of Jose Altuve, George Springer, Alex Bregman, and Carlos Correa, among others present.
If the Astros aren’t going to pull out all the stops to re-sign Cole, you can likely cross Stephen Strasburg, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Madison Bumgarner off the list, as they’re likely going to seek enormous long-term contracts too.
Then there’s Wheeler, who will command — and likely receive — a hefty deal as well but nowhere near as much as the aforementioned hurlers. But in an Astros uniform, he could be seen among the likes of those pitchers in the coming years.
The last two years have been a rollercoaster for Wheeler with the New York Mets. He has recorded ERAs of 3.31 and 3.96, WHIPs of 1.12 and 1.26, and compiled a combined 374 strikeouts. But each of those seasons have been two-act performances.
In 2018 Wheeler owned a 4.85 ERA through his first 14 starts. Over his last 15 starts he recorded a 2.06 ERA, totaled 100 strikeouts, and held opponents to a .195 batting average. Last season Wheeler owned a 4.94 ERA through his first 15 starts. Over his last 16 starts, Wheeler recorded a 3.04 ERA.
A coincidence? Him picking up speed as the season goes on? He’s a warm-weather specimen? How about the relief of knowing he’s not finishing the season with a different organization?
Throughout the first half of the last two seasons Wheeler has been a hot name on the trade block on a recurring basis. He looked poised to be traded before the MLB trade deadline but ultimately stayed in Queens and thrived down the stretch of both seasons.
Wheeler is a power pitcher. His fastball peaks the high 90s, and he commands the offering well. Meanwhile, he possesses a consistent five-pitch arsenal (four seamer, sinker, slider, changeup, and curveball). He goes deep into games, works out of trouble, and has shown glimpses of greatness.
He has the pitching arsenal to go to the next level; it’s a matter of being with the right staff. Is there a better team at fixing starters or taking their pitches to the next level than the Astros?
In 2017 they made an August trade for Verlander, who, while still a respected and reliable force, wasn’t dominant. You could argue he was on the decline. Then the Astros acquired him, he became their ace, and two years later Verlander has never been better.
The ensuing offseason they took a chance on Cole, who was coming off two inconsistent and injury-plagued seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, paying the steep price of starter Joe Musgrove, reliever Michael Feliz, Colin Moran (at the time, the Astros number-five prospect), and Jason Martin (at the time, the Astros number 15 prospect). In his first year with the Astros, Cole dazzled and may win the 2019 AL Cy Young Award.
Now does this mean the Astros acquire Wheeler and he becomes a Cy Young contender? No, but he has the upside to be a great pitcher and serve as a potent top-of-the-rotation starter. And if you want to go to extremes, Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer never had a Cy Young-caliber season — or remotely close to it — until he was 29. Wheeler is 29 right now.
Fun fact: the Astros were one of the teams asking the Mets about Wheeler at last season’s MLB trade deadline — per MLB Network’s Jon Heyman. Usually when a team asks about a player in a trade, they pursue them again whether it be via trade or free agency. No more negotiating with the Mets; the Astros can outright sign Wheeler, although they have to surrender compensation in the form of a draft pick due to Wheeler likely declining a qualifying offer. Well, that stinks, but it’s worth it for the Astros’ sake. They’re a contender looking to sustain such a status down the road.
Wheeler has shown what he can do. Heck, he was once touted as a future ace. The Astros have the confidence that they can right any pitcher. Wheeler is no different. He has the upside to be great given his array of offerings and velocity that supplements them. He probably wants to feel wanted, find a long-term home, and get words of wisdom from a different organization.
It may cost in excess of $15 million a year. It may be a deal that stretches over four-to-five years. But this is what the Astros do: they take chances on themselves to get the most out of players. How is potentially signing Wheeler any different?