The Philadelphia Phillies signed right-handed pitcher Zack Wheeler to a five-year, $118 million contract on Wednesday, the first nine-figure deal of the 2019-20 hot stove season. Wheeler, 29, is a former no. 6 overall pick whose early career with the Mets was marred by injuries that shelved him for the entirety of 2015 and 2016. So while Wheeler was groomed as part of the cohort of Mets pitching prospects that included Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, and Steven Matz, he was unable to join the Four Horsemen on their back-to-back trips to the playoffs.
For the past two seasons, though, Wheeler has been as reliably healthy as can be expected from a big league starter. He’s started 60 games, pitched 377 2/3 innings, and even posted a cumulative 107 ERA+ since the start of the 2018 campaign. He shores up an area of need for the Phillies, whose splashy offseason moves were undone by a fatal lack of pitching last year, and will become the team’s second-best starter the instant he toes the rubber at Citizens Bank Park.
However, the same thing could be said of Drew Smyly, whom the Phillies coaxed 12 league-average starts out of after they signed him midseason in a madcap search for someone, anyone, who could chuck a ball at the plate without having it end up in the seats. To put into context how execrable the Phillies’ staff was last season, the team finished with five pitchers who threw at least 50 innings and recorded a league-average ERA+ or better. The Tigers, who won just 47 games, had six.
The selling point for Wheeler—one that’s been parroted throughout free agency—is that he carries the potential for ace-level performance without an ace-level price tag. But outside of his exceptional fastball velocity and impressive underlying numbers, according to Statcast, he’s good but not great. Here’s a list of veteran free agent pitchers who posted a better ERA+ than Wheeler did in 2019: Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, Madison Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Gio González, Julio Teheran, Dallas Keuchel, and Tanner Roark. So too did Cole Hamels, the longtime former Phillies standout who inked a one-year deal with the archrival Atlanta Braves mere hours before the Wheeler contract was announced.
Now, pointing out that Wheeler’s real-world performance hasn’t lived up to his underlying numbers is not to deny the potential those numbers represent. But this is not some unknown quantity. Wheeler will turn 30 in May; he is older than Shelby Miller and Drew Hutchison, and less than a month younger than José Altuve. He played on the same 2013 Mets team as LaTroy Hawkins and Daisuke Matsuzaka. It’s eminently possible that he’s only ever going to be what he has been for the past two seasons: a reliable and intermittently flashy no. 3 starter.
Compared to Cole and Strasburg, the actual aces on the free agent market, Wheeler has a lower ceiling and a lower floor. And for taking on this blunted potential and risk of collapse, the Phillies are paying an average of $23.6 million per year—that’s more than the Nationals paid Patrick Corbin last offseason, when Corbin was coming off a fifth-place finish in Cy Young voting, and just $2 million a year less than the AAV on Bryce Harper’s deal, which was the richest in the history of American professional sports when he signed it nine months ago.
If Wheeler delivers ace-level performance—which, as his career-best 112 ERA+ and 24.1 K% show, he’s never done—that performance will come at near-ace-level cost.
On one level, cost doesn’t matter, because Wheeler’s salary comes out of the checkbook of John Middleton, the tobacco billionaire who owns the Phillies. But in the fantastical world of baseball, the Wheeler deal leaves the Phillies somewhere in the neighborhood of $40 million to $50 million under the competitive balance tax threshold, once the team resolves its arbitration cases and factors in benefits and minor league salaries.
Let’s leave aside the fact that the Phillies entered 2019 with a roster of extremely reliable big league hitters and almost every single one of them—Harper, Jean Segura, Rhys Hoskins, J.T. Realmuto, César Hernández—underperformed his career numbers. Even if that systemic offensive malaise can be chalked up to injuries (Andrew McCutchen blew out his knee but will be back for 2020) and mismanagement by the since-deposed Gabe Kapler, the Phillies still have two major holes in their lineup to fill after non-tendering Hernández and third baseman Maikel Franco, and center fielder Odubel Herrera’s status is in limbo after his suspension for violating the league’s domestic violence policy.
The Phillies are considering a variety of defensive lineups to mitigate those issues, including moving Segura to second, installing Scott Kingery at third—despite his being uniquely unsuited to the position—and pursuing a shortstop, such as Didi Gregorius, in free agency. Or Segura could remain at short and Kingery could play either second base or center field. Either way, the Phillies have to fill at least one position in their everyday lineup—and most likely two, as top third base prospect Alec Bohm is far from a lock to be big-league ready by spring.
That’s not the end of it. Even the most optimistic projection of the Phillies’ starting rotation, which includes Wheeler, leaves them at least one starting pitcher short. And while the 2019 Phillies’ pitching staff as a whole was dogshit, the bullpen specifically was Beyond Dogshit. Injuries played a factor there, but Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter are out of the organization, setup man David Robertson will be out for the season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, and Seranthony Domínguez’s elbow ligaments probably look like the innards of a spaghetti squash right about now.
In short, the Phillies have so many holes they ought to change their name to the Philadelphia Stanley Yelnatses, and rather than using their offseason budget to fill those gaps, they’ve blown about a third of it on one average player. And yet, if they’d been willing to increase their offer to $30 million a year, they could have walked away with Cole or Strasburg, both of whom have higher upside than Wheeler with almost none of the question marks. Maybe some of the same holes would remain, but the Phillies’ rotation would be substantially stronger.
It’s a puzzling choice, one perhaps best explained by the perverse hedge fund-inspired incentive structure in baseball today: GMs who sign risky players and watch them improve tend to be hailed as geniuses. GMs who sign risky players and watch them fail get fired. But GMs (or in the case of Dave Dombrowski and the Red Sox, presidents of baseball operations) who sign established stars to big contracts and win the World Series also get fired. The upside of pursuing Cole or Strasburg instead of Wheeler is obvious for the Phillies’ competitive potential, but perhaps not for GM Matt Klentak.
There are two scenarios in which this deal ends up as a win for the Phillies. The first is if Middleton and his partners empower Klentak to blow past the competitive balance tax threshold and pay the tax that comes with it. This would allow the Phillies to pursue other top-end free agents like Ryu, Anthony Rendon, and Josh Donaldson. It would also put the Phillies at odds with the 29 other teams—including the Dodgers, Red Sox, and Yankees—that have decided to treat the CBT as a hard salary cap.
The second is if Wheeler actually does turn into an ace. It’s fun to point at expected stats on Baseball Savant and make jokes about how the Mets are so constitutionally inept that any average starter would turn into Roger Clemens after leaving Queens. But the Phillies have provided zero evidence that they’re uniquely capable of either identifying or developing big league talent.
This goes beyond the bizarre fog that caused every player on the 2019 team to play about 10 percent worse than their career averages. The Phillies need Wheeler, a pitcher with an established big league track record, to jump up a weight class and perform at that level for multiple years. The Astros managed to get that kind of leap out of Cole and Charlie Morton (who went to Houston as a free agent after one abysmal and injury-plagued season in Philadelphia). So did the Red Sox, once upon a time, with Rick Porcello, and the Blue Jays with Marco Estrada. It could happen.
But the Phillies haven’t been able to pull off that kind of trick with a pitcher in the 21st century. Robert Person went from a replacement-level reliever with Toronto to a pretty good starter for about two and a half years when Philadelphia traded for him in mid-1999. But ever since, good Phillies pitchers have tended to be either internal prospects (Hamels, Aaron Nola, Brett Myers) or Cy Young–caliber acquisitions (Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt). Beyond Person, you have to go all the way back to Curt Schilling to find someone whose career arc with the Phillies fits what Wheeler would have to accomplish to reverse the narrative around this signing.
It is, to paraphrase manager Joe Girardi, not what you want.