As first reported by Marc Carig of The Athletic, the Philadelphia Phillies snagged Zack Wheeler off the free agent market on a multi-year deal.
Shortly after the news broke, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic emerged with the official numbers on Wheeler’s new contract with the Phillies.
Wheeler, 29, was considered to be at the top of the winter’s second-tier of free agent pitchers, sitting behind only Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg. He’s coming off back-to-back strong seasons with the New York Mets after bouncing back from Tommy John surgery, which temporarily shelved his career back in 2015.
Wheeler has made a combined 60 starts over the last two seasons, going 23-15 with a 3.74 ERA. Wheeler’s 2019 season saw him rack up just 11 wins and finish with a lofty 3.94 ERA, but he also struck out 195 batters in 195.1 innings. Much of Wheeler’s strikeout prowess comes from his lively fastball, which he used to strikeout 22.3 percent of batters he faced in the 2019 season, according to FanGraphs. He also averaged the highest fastball velocity of his career, finishing the season with a 97 MPH average velocity.
Wheeler uses his plus fastball to set up his secondary pitches, particularly his curveball with which he struck out 37 percent of batters during 2019. His preferred breaking pitch, however, is his slider, which he used to hold opposing hitters to a .230 batting average and a 23 percent strikeout rate.
The market for Wheeler was strong, as he had many suitors vying for his talents, including the already busy Chicago White Sox, according to Rosenthal.
Ultimately, Wheeler decided to stay in the National League East so he could remain close to his family in New Jersey (as Craig mentions). He will be joining a Phillies team that’s looking to rebound from a poor 2019 season that saw them finish 81-81, out of the playoff picture. Joe Girardi, after a two-year hiatus, is back in the dugout as the Phillies new manager, and he’s determined to bring a winning culture to a team that’s stocked with talent.
The Phillies made big splashes in free agency last winter, signing outfielders Bryce Harper and Andrew McCutchen and reliever David Robertson. However, it wasn’t enough to hang in what became a highly competitive NL East division. The Atlanta Braves and the eventual World Series Champions, the Washington Nationals, surpassed the Phillies and exposed them as an incomplete team that still needed more weapons.
Thus far this winter the team has cut ties with infielders Maikel Franco and Cesar Hernandez, but they remain one of the leading contenders to land the services of free agent shortstop Didi Gregorius. Girardi’s relationship and prior connection with Gregorius, along with the recent addition of Wheeler, could help the Phillies land one of the best free agent left-handed hitters on the open market.
Regardless of what happens with Gregorious or the rest of the offense, it’s clear that the Phillies are focused on bolstering their pitching staff. The team finished 11th in the NL in team ERA last season, which was a major reason why they underachieved. With Jake Arrieta entering the final year of his three-year, $75 million deal, the Phillies had little hesitation in backing up the truck for Wheeler. He joins Arrieta, Aaron Nola, Zach Eflin, and Vince Velasquez as the projected starting pitchers for the Phillies in 2020.
It’s highly unlikely that this will be the last move the Phillies make to help bolster their pitching staff. The bullpen and the backend of their rotation could still use some help, and the team still has plenty of financial flexibility to add more talent to those areas of their roster.
Nevertheless, the addition of Zack Wheeler is a major positive for a franchise that’s looking to remain relevant in a rapidly evolving NL East division. With Girardi at the helm and Wheeler starting every five days, the Phillies are already well on their way to a much-improved 2020 season.