Phils make 5-year deal with Wheeler official

December 10th, 2019

SAN DIEGO -- The Phillies opened the Winter Meetings on Monday with the announcement that they have officially signed right-hander to a five-year, $118 million contract.

It is a considerable commitment, but it paled in comparison with the seven-year, $245 million contract extension that Stephen Strasburg received on Monday from the Nationals. But that is exactly why the Phillies signed Wheeler in the first place. They knew they would not be in the market for Strasburg or Gerrit Cole, who is expected to top Strasburg’s deal. So knowing they needed to upgrade their rotation, they moved quickly to sign Wheeler, whom they considered the third-best free-agent starting pitcher available on the market.

“Wheeler's market was moving quickly whether we were in it or not,” general manager Matt Klentak said.

The Phillies believe Wheeler is worth the risks of a nine-figure contract. He has some of the best stuff in baseball -- his average fastball velocity ranked fourth among starters last season (minimum 750 four-seam fastballs thrown) -- and they also believe he has not reached his potential. Wheeler went 11-8 with a 3.98 ERA in 31 starts last season with the Mets, and in 60 starts over the past two 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.

“Well, I think you're going to have a 1 and a 1A with him and [Aaron] Nola,” manager Joe Girardi said. “When you look at what he's done the last few years and really throughout his career, he's continued to get better and better. This is a power guy with four pitches where I think he's just starting to reach his potential. I think there is more in the tank there. I think this guy can be more dominant than he's been, and we're looking forward to seeing the top of our rotation.”

On paper, Wheeler and Nola (3.9 WAR) should provide the Phillies a 1-2 punch they’ve not had at the top of the rotation since Cliff Lee (6.8 WAR) and Cole Hamels (4.2 WAR) in 2013.

“I think those are as good a twosome as you'll find in the league,” Klentak said.

OK, so what’s next? Philadelphia’s focus this week remains on the infield. Free-agent shortstop Didi Gregorius is the top target. Sure, free-agent third basemen Anthony Rendon and Josh Donaldson would make bigger splashes, but sources told that Wheeler is probably going to be the Phillies’ big-ticket item of the offseason.

Could that change? Sure, but that is the expectation.

The Phillies are fast approaching the $208 million Competitive Balance Tax threshold, and that it very much on their minds. They have less than $20 million of wiggle room before they hit that mark, and there are no indications they plan to blow past it. That’s why Phillies fans should not hold their breath on Cole, Rendon or Donaldson.

Of course, Klentak said the Phillies remain open-minded.

“[Ownership has] always encouraged us to stay engaged on everything,” he said. “If there's an opportunity to bring it to them, I think the most notable example, I think, was signing [Jake] Arrieta two years ago. That was not necessarily on our radar. It came together late, and the owners jumped on it. I'm not going to sit here today and declare that we are or are not in on certain players or that we will or will not exceed the CBT threshold. I think our job is to keep an open mind and continue to pursue all avenues and see what makes sense for us. There is an element of this from a management perspective in making sure we apply the proper balance to roster building and not get too top-heavy. We need to be responsible about it, but we're not going to shy away from pursuing or at least exploring opportunities, whether we bring them to the finish line or not.”

A source said last week that Philadelphia offered Hamels only about half of the $18 million the Braves paid him. The CBT played a role in that but, Klentak said, “As it turned out, Cole’s market and Wheeler’s market were progressing at a pretty similar clip. Really, that had as much to do with it as anything, and we also had to make sure we filled the infield role. Sometimes the timing works in your favor, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you’re forced to make decisions without perfect information in other areas, and we’re happy with the guy we got.”

The Phillies still might sign a low-end starter to provide more depth to the rotation, but it would not be a stunner to see them open Spring Training in February with Wheeler, Nola, Arrieta and Zach Eflin holding the top four spots in the rotation, with Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, Cole Irvin and possibly others competing for the final two spots. Top pitching prospect Spencer Howard will not make the team to start the season, but if he pitches well, he could push for a job by the middle of the summer.

To sign Wheeler, the Phillies forfeited their second-round Draft pick in 2020, plus $500,000 in international bonus pool money for the 2020-21 signing period, because he rejected the Mets’ one-year, $17.8 million qualifying offer.