Zack Wheeler has been the most dominant Phillies pitcher since the Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels days, with numbers that may one day lead him to Cooperstown. Zack Wheeler signed a 5 year, $118 million dollar deal with the Phillies on December 9th, 2019, one of the only moves that then GM Matt Klentak actually hit on. With how much wrong Klentak did during his tenure with the Phillies, it’s ironic that Wheeler’s deal will be looked at as one of the best deals in Phillies history, potentially MLB history for the amount of success Wheeler has had at such a discounted price. But now, entering the final year of his contract, Wheeler is going to be looking for a massive pay day, something that Dave Dombrowski and the organization will need to pay to continue having one of the strongest rotations in baseball.
Entering the offseason of 2019, Philadelphia found themselves looking to find a top of the line starter to pair with Aaron Nola. The Phillies believed Wheeler was worth the risks of a nine-figure contract even after multiple stints on the injured list plagued his time in NY, including a torn UCL and Tommy John. He had some of the best stuff in baseball with an average fastball velo ranked fourth among starters that season and the team also believing he hadn’t reached the peak of where his career could go. We now see how that has turned out, with Zack Wheeler becoming a perennial Ace with Cy Young-level numbers. Wheeler went 11-8 with a 3.98 ERA in 31 starts in his final season with the Mets, and in 60 starts over the final two Mets seasons, he had a 3.65 ERA and a 3.37 FIP. “Based on FanGraphs and Baseball Reference, Wheeler’s WAR made him either the 10th- or 19th-most valuable pitcher in that span” wrote Todd Zolecki back when Wheeler first signed in Philadelphia. Wheeler has since pitched to a 3.06 ERA over his first four seasons in Philadelphia and is the leader to one of the better starting rotations in baseball. He has a 2.42 ERA across 63 1/3 postseason innings for the Phillies. And entering his age 34 season, while previously missing out on a major pay day, Wheeler and his agents will be looking for big-time numbers.
The Phillies have made major deals for Nola, Bryce Harper and Trea Turner with a focus to keep the yearly AAV number below $27 million. The approach could be different with Wheeler, who is nearing his mid 30s. As Zolecki mentions in his story, a shorter term, higher AAV deal for Wheeler is good for both sides. If the Phillies retain Wheeler, he will almost certainly become the first player in franchise history to make over $30 million AAV.
It’s going to take a big offer from the Phillies to persuade Wheeler to skip his next attempt at free agency. Next season’s free agent top starting pitchers is stacked. If the Phillies do not extend Wheeler, he could hit the market alongside Corbin Burnes, Max Fried, Max Scherzer and Gerrit Cole, who is expected to opt out for another longer-term deal. Wheeler’s first deal came with significant injury concerns, which made him such a discount compared to the other tops arms at the time, Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole. Zack Wheeler’s second deal comes with a different type of concern with these same risk even though he has stayed relatively healthy throughout his current deal. Aging arms in baseball will always come with major injury concerns, a risk that increases for any player that throws as hard as Wheeler does and has previously dealt with a Tommy John surgery. But the Phillies know that they must lock up their current ace and keep Wheeler. Todd Zolecki has reported that Dombrowski and Wheeler’s camp have spoken multiple times, with the Phillies goal to get him locked up during Spring Training coming up in the next few weeks. With the Phillies arms looking strong, currently boasting a rotation of Wheeler, Nola, Ranger Suarez, Taijuan Walker, Christopher Sanchez and young prospects Mick Abel and Andrew Painter looming, the time is now to lock up their ace for the long haul, putting them on the same winning timeline as other deals the Phillies have committed to recently. It’s time for Dave to keep the checkbook out and extend Zack Wheeler.