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Frontrunners emerging in race for coveted hurler

November 19, 2019

After emerging as one of the National League's better power pitchers over the last two seasons (23-15, 3.65 ERA, 3.37 FIP, 8.9 K/9), Zack Wheeler is now a free agent. He is tied to Draft-pick compensation if he signs with a new team after being one of 10 players to

After emerging as one of the National League's better power pitchers over the last two seasons (23-15, 3.65 ERA, 3.37 FIP, 8.9 K/9), Zack Wheeler is now a free agent. He is tied to Draft-pick compensation if he signs with a new team after being one of 10 players to receive the $17.8 million qualifying offer.

Below is a list of the latest news and rumors surrounding the 29-year-old right-hander.

Morosi: 4 teams leading the race for Wheeler

Nov. 19: Wheeler may not be a free agent for long. According to MLB.com's Jon Paul Morosi on MLB Network's "Hot Stove" program Tuesday, the right-hander is receiving a lot of interest, and his market already has a good deal of clarity. Morosi reports that the Angels, Padres, White Sox and Twins are the "leading group right now" for Wheeler.

Morosi thinks a five-year deal in the range of $20 million per year is plausible for the 29-year-old and speculates that he will sign "long before Gerrit Cole," and possibly even before Stephen Strasburg.

Although Cole and Strasburg are considered the top two pitchers on the market, there might be more teams in the mix for Wheeler than the other two, considering the expected cost disparity. Cole and Strasburg could get upwards of $30 million a year on a longer deal that Wheeler is likely to command.

Among the four teams Morosi mentioned, only the Angels are considered a realistic landing spot for Cole or Strasburg. The Padres were thought to be a possible suitor for Strasburg, a San Diego native, but Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune reported last week that the club likely doesn't have room in the budget for such a large expenditure.

The Angels (29th), White Sox (24th) and Padres (18th) all finished in the bottom half of MLB in rotation ERA last season. The Twins ranked 11th, but three of their starters are free agents.

How will Wheeler's deal compare to Corbin's?

Nov. 18: After Patrick Corbin signed a six-year, $140 million contract with the Nationals last offseason, Wheeler can reasonably make the case that he deserves a similar deal. On Monday, MLB Network's "Hot Stove" crew compared each pitcher's stats in his final two seasons before free agency, and the results weren't all that different.

Corbin in 2017-18: 389 2/3 IP, 3.58 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 9.8 K/9
Wheeler in 2018-19: 377 2/3 IP, 3.65 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 8.9 K/9

The similarities don't end there. When Corbin hit the free-agent market in 2018, he was 29 years old and more than four years removed from Tommy John surgery. The same goes for Wheeler now.

However, Wheeler has the misfortune of becoming a free agent in a much stronger year for free-agent starters. Last offseason, Corbin was by far the best starter on the market. Wheeler is not only a distant third behind Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, but he also has to compete with Madison Bumgarner and Hyun-Jin Ryu in the second tier.

Furthermore, Corbin was much better in his walk year, posting a 3.15 ERA with 246 strikeouts in 200 innings. Wheeler had a 3.96 ERA with 195 K's in 195 1/3 innings this past season.

Likely taking those factors into consideration, neither Joel Sherman nor Harold Reynolds think Wheeler will come anywhere close to Corbin's contract. Sherman predicts Wheeler will fall "someplace between Nathan Eovaldi -- four years at $68 million -- and Patrick Corbin."

Wheeler in pinstripes … a perfect fit?

Nov. 17: While every team could use Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg, Wheeler may be the free-agent starting pitcher with the longest list of suitors this offseason. The righty is arguably the third-best starter available, and the cost to acquire him will be far lower than Cole or Strasburg.

That said, Wheeler might not have to go far to find the ideal landing spot. MLB.com's Richard Justice thinks the Yankees fit the bill.

Wheeler has spent the entirety of his big league tenure with the crosstown Mets, proving he can thrive in the media capital of the world. However, he has never appeared in the postseason, missing the team's run to a World Series appearance in 2015 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. The desire to contend for a championship could draw Wheeler to the Yankees.

"Wheeler will have plenty of other options, but none may be as appealing as being part of a franchise that has been to the postseason 21 times in the last 25 seasons," Justice writes.

Will Wheeler head back to his home state?

Nov. 16: Wheeler is from Georgia and made his Major League debut at Turner Field against the Braves in 2013. Could he now find himself on his home state's team? MLB.com's Richard Justice writes that it could happen, as Justice maps out how the offseason could unfold. Justice predicts the Yankees, Astros, Phillies, Twins, Rangers and Brewers could all be in the mix before the Braves land the right-hander. More >

Could Mets look to bring Wheeler back?

Nov. 14: Wheeler declined the $17.8 million qualifying offer from the Mets for the 2020 season on Thursday. This was not exactly a surprise, given that the hard-throwing 29-year-old was expected to be among the most sought-after pitchers -- if not all players -- on the open market this offseason.

In other words, Wheeler shouldn't have any trouble getting a long-term pact, with some speculating that his contract could be a mega-deal (perhaps approaching nine figures?), depending on how many and which teams get involved.

While the Mets "would like to have [Wheeler] back," as MLB.com's Anthony DiComo pointed out, it's looking more and more like the righty will be at the center of a "bidding war" for his services. That could price him out of his former club's range.

Could Astros replace Cole with Wheeler?

Nov. 13: A year ago, when Dallas Keuchel became a free agent, the Astros opted to go with one low-cost signing (Wade Miley) and a host of internal candidates behind Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole in their rotation. But after most of its internal options either struggled, dealt with injuries, or both, Houston ended up swinging a deal for Zack Greinke at the Trade Deadline.

With Cole now a free agent, Astros president of baseball operations and general manager Jeff Luhnow said Tuesday that he would like to add "more than one" veteran starter this offseason, according to Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle, though he didn't provide any specifics.

As Rome points out, Luhnow doesn't have a track record for handing out lengthy contracts to free-agent starting pitchers. In fact, the longest free-agent contract given to a starter during Luhnow's tenure was Scott Feldman's three-year pact in 2013. But the team may need to divert from its typical M.O. to effectively replace Cole.

MLB Network insider Jon Heyman reported Monday that the Astros met with Wheeler's agency, perhaps signaling a plan to pursue the free-agent righty. It wouldn't be the first time the team tried to acquire Wheeler, according to SNY's Andy Martino, who notes that Houston nearly traded for Wheeler on July 31.

Replacing Cole with Wheeler would certainly make sense for the Astros. In October, MLB.com's Andrew Simon broke down the reasons why Wheeler has the potential to make the same type of leap Cole did when he joined Houston two years ago.

Report: Wheeler might match Padres' comfort level

Nov. 12: The Padres are one of the clubs expected to hang around the free-agent starting pitching market this offseason, but they might not be a premium spender. Kevin Acee of The San Diego Union-Tribune reports that sources familiar with the club's plans tell him that the Padres "will not be in the market" for San Diego native Stephen Strasburg. The same approach likely applies to Gerrit Cole, who figures to command an even higher contract than Strasburg.

By sitting out the two biggest arms races, the Padres' path could be set more toward Wheeler, Acee writes. The hard-throwing righty could anchor what the Padres believe to be an up-and-coming rotation with young arms like Chris Paddack, Dinelson Lamet and top prospect MacKenzie Gore, while potentially leaving the club flexibility to adjust its heavily right-handed lineup that has struggled over much of the past few seasons.

Wheeler already drawing widespread interest

Nov. 11: Wheeler is already drawing interest from at least four teams -- and that's not even including the Mets -- with the right-hander likely to reject the qualifying offer and hit the open market.

Those teams include the Angels, Padres and White Sox, according to MLB.com's Jon Paul Morosi, and the Astros, according to MLB Network insider Jon Heyman.

Heyman reports that the Astros "have long liked" Wheeler and met with his agents on Monday, while SNY's Andy Martino notes that the Astros thought they were close to a deal for Wheeler at this year's Trade Deadline and were unhappy they couldn't get one done.

Wheeler officially has until Thursday at 5 p.m. ET to decide on the Mets' one-year, $17.8 million qualifying offer. Per Heyman, though, Wheeler will decline the offer.

For other teams that need starting pitching, Wheeler probably ranks as the third-best starter available after Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, and he'll be much less expensive than the other two.

However, some of the most likely suitors for Wheeler are also expected to be in the mix for Cole, Strasburg, or both, and they may not move aggressively on Wheeler until they've gauged their chances of signing those pitchers. Cole and Strasburg are both represented by agent Scott Boras, who has proven to be comfortable waiting until late in the offseason for his biggest clients to sign. It will be interesting to see if Wheeler's representatives from Jet Sports Management will be patient as well in an effort to capitalize on the increased demand for Wheeler that could come from Cole and/or Strasburg being off the market.

Will Wheeler reach multiyear deal to stay in New York?

Nov 11: Wheeler might be expected to decline the Mets' qualifying offer -- but that doesn't mean Wheeler's leaving New York.

The Mets are interested in a multiyear deal to keep Wheeler, according to a report Monday from MLB Network insider Jon Heyman. It's only if they can't come to an agreement that they'll pursue other options to round out the rotation.

With Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Marcus Stroman and Steven Matz under control for 2020, the Mets could seek a less expensive starter via trade or free agency. It's even possible that New York's future No. 5 starter is already on the roster.

Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen said last week that Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman will be considered for starting roles. The problem is that Lugo and Gsellman have been two of the team's most reliable relievers over the past two years. Lugo was especially valuable in 2019, throwing 80 stellar innings (150 ERA+) out of the bullpen and taking over as the team's closer down the stretch in place of the struggling Edwin Díaz. So the Mets could also keep Lugo and Gsellman in the bullpen and seek an external replacement for Wheeler if no multiyear deal is reached.

Who's the top SP prize after Cole and Strasburg?

Nov. 9: When it comes to this year's free agent starting pitchers, there's Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, and then everyone else. The top choice from a second tier that includes Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner and Hyun-Jin Ryu might differ from team to team.

In their story for ESPN+ (subscription required) breaking down the starting pitcher market, Buster Olney and Dave Schoenfield both named Wheeler as the pitcher they would most like to have after the Big 2.

"A lot of that depends on price, but I suspect that the teams that lose out on the Cole bidding may turn to Wheeler because of the flashes of excellence and his age (29)," Olney writes. "At last summer's Trade Deadline, the Braves, Yankees, Astros and Rays were all involved in conversations with the Mets about possible Wheeler trades, foreshadowing the interest in him this winter."

Bradford Doolittle, meanwhile, chose Bumgarner over Wheeler in a close race. In Doolittle's view, Wheeler might be the better choice for next season, but Bumgarner is more of a sure thing to provide above-average innings over the life of a multiyear contract.

Fans may be split between Wheeler and Bumgarner as well, if this MLB Trade Rumors poll (which starter would you sign between Wheeler, Bumgarner and Ryu?) is any indication. With more than 10,000 total votes cast as of Saturday afternoon, Wheeler is at 40.36 percent, while Bumgarner has garnered 38.51 percent.

Ryu is third at 21.13 percent, even though he is coming off a Cy Young Award-caliber season and is the only one of the three hurlers who doesn't have a qualifying offer attached to him. The left-hander's age (32), injury history and league-average strikeout rate (22.5 percent) are possible reasons for the disparity between Ryu and the other two.

Wheeler fits in Philly, but QO could complicate situation

Nov. 8: The Phillies need starters, and Wheeler appears to be a fit. Will the right-hander make the jump from the Mets to one of the team's fiercest rivals? MLB Trade Rumors predicted as much in the site's list of the top 50 free agents, and Jim Bowden included Philadelphia among the most likely suitors for Wheeler in his free-agent rankings for The Athletic (subscription required).

However, the qualifying offer Wheeler received from New York could complicate the situation.

In a radio appearance on 94 WIP in Philadelphia on Thursday, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak stressed the importance of not losing Draft picks after the team did so when it signed three players (Carlos Santana, Jake Arrieta, Bryce Harper) who rejected a QO in the past two offseasons.

"One of the things we have to try to do, if we can, is to not forfeit Draft picks, and that's hard when you're fishing in the deep end of the free-agent pond," Klentak said. "But we lost our second-round pick last year and our second and third the year before. That doesn't sound like a lot, but that's where Scott Kingery comes from, that's where Spencer Howard comes from, that's where Connor Seabold comes from. That's where some good players come from."

In addition to Wheeler, four other top free-agent starters -- Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, Madison Bumgarner and Jake Odorizzi -- received a QO this year, which means the Phils' options could be limited if they indeed want to avoid giving up another pick.

Notable starters who didn't get a QO include Hyun-Jin Ryu, Dallas Keuchel and former Phillies ace Cole Hamels.

Hamels has expressed interest in returning to the city where he spent the first 10 years of his career and won a World Series title. The veteran left-hander also said he is willing to sign a one-year deal to join a contender.

Could Wheeler be the Yankees' fallback option for Cole?

Nov. 6: The Yankees' decision to sign DJ LeMahieu to a two-year, $24 million contract instead of paying up for Manny Machado last offseason worked out incredibly well. LeMahieu was arguably the team's MVP, and New York had more resources to spend elsewhere.

The team will likely pursue free agent Gerrit Cole this year, but if the ace right-hander signs elsewhere or his asking price is too lofty, Ken Davidoff of the New York Post thinks signing a lower-cost alternative could work out well for the Yankees again.

If the Yankees miss out on Cole, Davidoff suggests they should do what it takes to get Wheeler to jump from one New York team to another, even though it would cost the Yankees two Draft picks in addition to Wheeler's salary.

The Mets extended Wheeler a one-year, $17.8 million qualifying offer, and the Yankees exceeded the Competitive Balance Tax Threshold in 2019. Per the QO rules, The Yanks will have to give up their second- and fifth-round draft picks, plus $1 million in international bonus pool money, to sign any player who rejects a qualifying offer this offseason.

Granted, Cole also received a qualifying offer, as did three other top starting pitchers -- Stephen Strasburg, Madison Bumgarner and Jake Odorizzi. If the Yankees want to significantly upgrade their rotation via free agency, there's a good chance they will be giving up those picks either way.

In Davidoff's view, Wheeler is the pitcher the Yanks should target from the second tier because he already has shown the ability to succeed in New York, and because he endured a great deal -- Tommy John surgery, trade rumors, general dysfunction -- during his time with the Mets and still emerged as one of the most valuable starters in the game over the past two seasons.

Will Wheeler sign long-term deal with Mets?

Nov. 4: In a widely expected move, the Mets extended a one-year, $17.8 million qualifying offer to Wheeler before Monday's deadline. That sets up New York to receive Draft-pick compensation upon Wheeler joining another team, assuming the right-hander rejects the offer. Wheeler has 10 days to make his decision.

General manager Brodie Van Wagenen indicated that the team has had discussions with Wheeler on a long-term contract and will continue that dialogue if the 29-year-old declines the offer.

But with four-fifths of their rotation in place for next season (Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Marcus Stroman, Steven Matz) and other needs to address, the Mets might not be willing to pay as much for Wheeler's services as another team.

MLB.com's Andrew Simon recently broke down the reasons why Wheeler, with his high-velocity arsenal and untapped potential, could be the next Gerrit Cole. And on Friday, Aaron Gleeman of The Athletic (subscription required) placed Wheeler third on his list of the top 20 free-agent starters, after Cole and Stephen Strasburg.

"Often overshadowed by bigger-name rotation-mates and forever perceived as fragile after being sidelined for 2015 and '16 by elbow surgery, Wheeler is now a full-fledged top-of-the-rotation starter," Gleeman wrote.

In his breakdown of the top 35 free agents on the market, The Athletic's Jim Bowden predicts Wheeler will sign for four years and $74 million, listing the Mets, Phillies, Brewers, Twins and Angels as the best fits.

If the Mets do bring Wheeler back, it could free up the team to reopen trade talks regarding Syndergaard, who can become a free agent in two years. The Mets shopped Wheeler and Syndergaard before the 2019 Trade Deadline but ultimately kept both pitchers, and Van Wagenen declared after the regular season ended that Syndergaard will be on the team next year.

This contender could set its sights on Wheeler

Nov. 3: Wheeler sits in the next tier of free-agent starters, alongside Madison Bumgarner and Hyun-Jin Ryu, below Gerrit Cole and the record contract he's expected to receive. And that tier could be in the Twins' wheelhouse as they look to build momentum off a 101-win season. The defending American League Central division champions will have most of their record-setting lineup and solid bullpen intact, but their rotation could be a big question mark now that Kyle Gibson, Jake Odorizzi and Michael Pineda are all free agents.

La Velle Neal III of the Minnesota Star-Tribune estimates that the Twins could have roughly $50 million to spend on free-agent upgrades, which could leave them enough room to sign at least one of their departing free-agent starters (say, Odorizzi) and still add an impact starter like Wheeler.

Strasburg opts out; here's what it means for Wheeler, other FA starters

Nov. 2: On the heels of a postseason for the ages culminating in a World Series MVP Award, Strasburg is set to hit the open market. The right-hander had the ability to opt out of the remaining four years and $100 million on his contract by noon ET on Saturday, the same day the Nationals held their World Series parade in Washington D.C. While no official announcement has been made, a source told MLB.com's Mark Feinsand that Strasburg is opting out.

Strasburg immediately becomes one of the top players available, along with longtime Nationals teammate Anthony Rendon and ace right-hander Gerrit Cole.

Of course, just because Strasburg opted out doesn't mean he's going to leave the nation's capital. The Nationals could look to bring him back on a more lucrative contract. Last year, Clayton Kershaw had a similar opt-out situation with the Dodgers, and he eventually used that leverage to land a new three-year deal for $93 million to stay in Los Angeles. Previously, he had two years and $65 million left on his deal.

But for now, Strasburg is free to sign anywhere, which could shake up the starting pitcher market in a big way.

Strasburg opting out means there is a viable alternative to Cole. This doesn't change Cole's status all that much, if at all. But as long as Strasburg is available, teams may be less inclined to talk themselves into Wheeler's potential, or Madison Bumgarner's ability to remain effective as the innings continue to pile up, or the likelihood that Hyun-Jin Ryu can stay healthy.