Wheeler, Hamels just the start. Here's what's next
The top two free-agent pitchers remain unsigned, but the status of the next tier of starters behind Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg began to shake out Wednesday.
The first domino to fall was Cole Hamels, who agreed to a one-year, $18 million deal with the Braves. Philadelphia had been talking with Hamels about a potential reunion, but Atlanta made a hard push for the left-hander on Tuesday, resulting in the one-year pact.
With Hamels off the board, the Phillies decided to go bigger -- as in $100 million bigger. The Phils agreed to a five-year, $118 million deal with Zack Wheeler, who had pitched all five of his previous big league seasons with the National League East-rival Mets. That deal will pay the hard-throwing right-hander an average of $23.6 million per year, slightly more in terms of average annual value than Patrick Corbin got from the Nationals last offseason, when the lefty inked a six-year, $140 million pact ($23.33 million per year).
Now that Wheeler and Hamels have found new baseball homes, all eyes (at least those that weren’t already focused on Cole and Strasburg) will turn to Madison Bumgarner and the rest of the pitching market.
So who was affected the most by Wednesday’s deals? Let’s take a look.
The biggest winner next to Wheeler on Wednesday was Bumgarner, who now seems like a near-lock to land a nine-figure deal. According to one executive, the market for Bumgarner is heating up to the point where it seems likely he’ll sign prior to next week’s Winter Meetings.
Bumgarner is only nine months older than Wheeler, and while his track record is superior -- 119 regular-season wins to 44, not to mention a well-earned reputation as one of the best postseason pitchers in history -- the left-hander has also thrown nearly 1,100 innings more than his counterpart.
After seeing an innings dip in 2017-18 due to injuries, Bumgarner bounced back with a 207 2/3-inning campaign in '19, striking out 203 batters. He hasn’t posted a sub-3.00 ERA since 2016 (the last of his four All-Star seasons), but Bumgarner has been below 4.00 in each of the past three years.
Bumgarner’s 3.13 career ERA is more than a half-run lower than Wheeler’s, though their ERAs the past two seasons are nearly identical (Bumgarner 3.66, Wheeler 3.65). The comparisons are clear, so expect Bumgarner to be paid in similar fashion, albeit possibly for one fewer year.
The Twins, White Sox, Braves and Reds are among Bumgarner's potential suitors.
The Braves’ signing of Hamels might spell the end for Keuchel in Atlanta, where he went 8-8 with a 3.75 ERA in 19 starts after joining the club in June. The Braves are still seeking another starter this offseason, though it remains to be seen whether they’ll be willing to hand out the type of contract the former American League Cy Young Award winner will surely be seeking.
Unlike last offseason, Keuchel does not have Draft pick compensation attached to him, which will help his cause as he looks for a multi-year deal.
Aside from the Braves, the Blue Jays and White Sox are among the teams that could pursue Keuchel.
The addition of Wheeler to a rotation that includes Aaron Nola, Zach Eflin and Jake Arrieta answers a major question for the Phillies, who could still be in the market for another starter. Would Philly make another big move for an arm such as Bumgarner or Keuchel?
We all remember the “stupid money” comment made by managing partner John Middleton last winter, and even after signing Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson (not to mention trading for J.T. Realmuto and Jean Segura) before the 2019 season, the Phillies have plenty of payroll flexibility to work with. It’s difficult to believe they’re done this offseason.
Chicago White Sox
The White Sox already handed out the largest free-agent contract in franchise history this winter when they signed catcher Yasmani Grandal to a four-year, $73 million deal.
Chicago was prepared to blow that number away for Wheeler, who reportedly turned down a bigger offer in the $120-125 million range from the White Sox to sign with the Phillies. Could the White Sox now turn to Bumgarner with a similar offer as they try to finish off their rebuild with another significant free-agent signing or two?
The Twins were believed to be a major suitor for Wheeler as they look to add an arm to a group that has José Berríos and Jake Odorizzi atop its rotation.
Bumgarner is still in play for the Twins, who might be one of the primary competitors for the White Sox in the sweepstakes for the lefty. Minnesota could also pivot to another starter on the market, such as Keuchel or Hyun-Jin Ryu, or even look to the trade market to find another arm.
The Rangers seem to be linked to every free agent as they prepare to move into their new ballpark, and Wheeler was no exception. Texas was reportedly not among the final candidates to land the right-hander as the bidding came to a close.
Kyle Gibson signed a three-year, $30 million deal to join Mike Minor and Lance Lynn in the Rangers’ rotation, but Texas’ pursuit of Wheeler indicates that general manager Jon Daniels would like to add another notable arm. Ryu -- who recently said it would be “special” to play with fellow South Korean Shin-Soo Choo -- could be an option now that Wheeler is off the board.
This week’s signing of Mike Moustakas to a four-year, $64 million deal was another sign that the Reds are going for it. Cincinnati is already in good shape as far as its rotation (Luis Castillo, Trevor Bauer, Sonny Gray, Anthony DeSclafani), yet the Reds were among the final teams being considered by Wheeler before he chose the Phillies.
Cincinnati is not in a desperate position to add another starter, but its heavy interest in Wheeler suggests that’s still a possibility. The Reds could turn their attention to the group of Bumgarner/Keuchel/Ryu, or possibly look at some of the Tier 3 free agents such as Wade Miley, Rick Porcello or Tanner Roark.
The Cole/Strasburg suitors
The Yankees, Dodgers and Angels have been among the teams focused on the two biggest fish in the free-agent pond, but it’s reasonable to assume Wheeler (and to a lesser extent, Hamels) might have been a Plan B for the clubs that don’t land Cole or Strasburg.
That’s now off the table following Wednesday’s deals, which could push any (or all) of those teams to get more aggressive with Cole and/or Strasburg. The Yankees had been seen by many as a possible landing spot for Wheeler, who has already proven capable of handling the bright lights of New York.