Time flies when your team’s a World Series contender. Just under four months ago, the Phillies suffered the franchise’s most catastrophic collapse in the 21st century, when they fell to the Arizona Diamondbacks in Game 7 of the 2023 NLCS. This Saturday they’ll take the field once more, albeit in Clearwater’s Baycare Ballpark for the first game of Spring Training. 

The taste of that defeat is still fresh on the lips of players, staff and everybody across the organization. They fell short–not from a lack of talent, but a lack of performance at the right time. They psychologically collapsed against a team of lesser talent. It’s baseball. That happens. That loss, however, is a driving factor in the minds of the players and front office alike. It’s why Managing Partner John Middleton gave an impassioned speech to the team earlier this week. It’s why the players have stated how hungry they are – in the past two years, no team has one more postseason games than the Phillies. They just have yet to win the biggest series of all. 

The Phillies are on the cusp of greatness and they know it. If anything, 2023’s collapse proved that the miracle run to the Fall Classic in 2022 was more than a miracle–it was a product of their talent and team chemistry. That’s why the Phillies, amidst all of the free agent hoopla and rumors, have decided to run it back. A surprise signing of star left-handers Blake Snell or Jordan Montgomery would be great, but doesn’t seem likely.

 

Zack Wheeler’s Contract Extension

 

The only pressing need that the Phillies’ front office is currently facing revolves around the 2024-25 offseason, where staff ace Zack Wheeler is set to hit free agency. Wheeler, who will turn 34 on May 30th, is entering the final year of a five-year $118 million contract of which he has vastly outperformed. In the last four seasons, Wheeler has led all starting pitchers in WAR. In 2021, he was snubbed by Corbin Burnes for the N.L. Cy Young award, despite leading the league with 213.1 innings pitched and a 2.78 ERA. In four seasons with the Phillies including the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season, Wheeler has thrown 629.1 innings with a 3.06 ERA. He has a 2.42 ERA across all of his postseason appearances with the Phillies. 

Wheeler has been everything that a team would want in their ace. He has led by example, a quiet force in the locker room, he has never complained or become embittered with the team’s failures. He has grown with the team and lifted them to the highest of stages. It is only through Wheeler’s extraordinary play, that the Phillies have been able to put together one of the most feared one-two combinations in baseball. Wheeler, by virtue of existence, has taken the spotlight and the pressure off of home grown talent Aaron Nola. 

Wheeler is undoubtedly one of the top pitchers in the sport. Yet in 2023, he will be paid $23.6 million, the 12th-highest average annual value for any starting pitcher in baseball. So it would make sense that Wheeler, one of the top pitchers in the sport, would like to be paid “market value” in his next contract.

The question is does it make sense for the Phillies? The answer, like the bottom of Wheeler’s signature red beard, is somewhat gray. Earlier this offseason, his running mate Nola, who turns 31 in June, signed a seven-year, $172 million extension with an average annual value of $24.5 million. The Phillies would be unwise to give Wheeler the same treatment. 

Wheeler is better than Nola, no doubt about it, but he is also four years older. For as good as he’s been – and as much as the Phillies will need him in the next few years – the concerns are obvious. What does a contract extension look like for an aging power pitcher who in the last three seasons has seen his fastball velocity decrease dramatically while his hard hit and fly ball rates have only increased? What kind of risk are the Phillies willing to take on an aging arm with a lot of mileage?

A calculated one is likely the answer. For all of the concerns surrounding Wheeler, there is the biting fact that without him, the Phillies starting rotation is left adrift. Aaron Nola is a good number two, not a one, Ranger Suarez and Taijuan Walker are middle of the rotation pieces, nothing and nothing less, and future prospects Mick Abel and Andrew Painter have yet to sniff the big leagues. Meanwhile, the Phillies’ core group of players – excluding Alec Bohm and Bryson Stott – are all in their early thirties. Kyle Schwarber has two years left on his contract, Nick Castellanos has three years remaining and J.T. Realmuto has two. Bryce Harper and Trea Turner are both in the peak of their prime years. The window of contention is growing smaller by the year. 

All of these factors make up Wheeler’s worth. In a vacuum, Wheeler is probably worth something around $28-30 million a year. For the Phillies, in a shorter window, he might be worth more. For other teams, in a five-year or longer contract, he might be worth less in AAV but more overall.

For both Wheeler and the Phillies, it’s a game of priorities. Will the Phillies prioritize having the best version of Wheeler around on a short-term extension enough to push past the competitive tax threshold for the next two or three years? Or will they prioritize their spending ability by folding and inking Wheeler to a longer, lower-AAV deal? A three-year deal in the range of $75-80 million seems to make all the sense in the world. But for Wheeler, who might want to pitch past his late thirties, it might not fit the bill.

For Wheeler, it’s a matter of how much he wants to win in Philadelphia. If the Phillies are shrewd and short him on years, he likely will be able to get more money and long term security elsewhere. He could look elsewhere, but elsewhere isn’t Philadelphia. Elsewhere isn’t where Wheeler has had the best years of his career, where he’s come to the brink of winning a world championship, where he’s been the undisputed number one pitcher on the team for the past four years. For Wheeler, Philadelphia is home. For the Phillies, Wheeler is their best shot at maximizing their chances of winning a World Series. It’s why the team has stated time and time again that extending Wheeler is a “priority” of theirs. Wheeler has taken them to the biggest stage. They know how good he is and how good they are with him on the mound.

 

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