Dave Dombrowski said he wasn’t confident the Phillies would re-sign Aaron Nola once he hit free agency.
He knows anything can happen on the open market.
But the Phillies signed Nola to a seven-year, $172 million contract on Nov. 19. They held a press conference the next day. Moments after it ended, a reporter asked Dombrowski if it was a priority to sign Zack Wheeler to a contract extension to avoid this situation next year, when Wheeler is set to become a free agent.
“We know we’d like to keep him in the organization for a lengthy period,” Dombrowski said. “But it’s not always easy. So it’s something that I’m sure we’ll pursue at some point. But I’m not sure, at this point, how important it is for them at this time.”
That last sentence could be interpreted as Wheeler preferring to test free agency, but the two parties have discussed an extension. No offer has been made, but one is expected at some point. Perhaps those talks continue next week at the Winter Meetings in Nashville, Tenn.
There should be urgency on the Phillies’ part, if they want to keep Wheeler -- perhaps more urgency than they had with Nola. Because while Nola has been one of the game’s best pitchers for years, he had his ups and downs in recent seasons. Wheeler has no warts on his resume. He is a bona fide ace with the numbers to prove it, both in the regular season and the postseason. Wheeler’s 19.6 bWAR and 19.3 fWAR the past four seasons is the best in the Majors. Wheeler’s 2.42 ERA in the postseason is the sixth best in MLB history (minimum 10 starts).
Teams will be throwing cash at Wheeler next offseason, which is why the Phillies’ best opportunity to keep him is now. But what will it take? The big difference between Wheeler and Nola is age. Wheeler turns 34 on May 30. Nola turns 31 on June 4. Nola will be 37 when his contract expires. Wheeler would be 41 if he signed a seven-year contract.
It is not impossible to imagine Wheeler signing a multiyear deal like that, but it’s easier to see him signing one like Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander signed in recent years: A contract shorter in length with a higher AAV (average annual value). Scherzer, 39, signed a three-year, $130 million contract that runs through 2024 ($43.33 million AAV). Verlander, 40, signed a two-year, $86.7 million deal that runs through '24 ($43.33 million AAV).
Pitchers like Jacob deGrom ($37 million AAV), Gerrit Cole ($36 million) and Stephen Strasburg ($35 million AAV) signed longer-term deals with an AAV between Scherzer and Verlander.
There is no reason to think Wheeler won’t match deGrom and Cole in AAV, if he finishes another dominant season healthy. Perhaps he will push Scherzer and Verlander, too. Wheeler is younger than both of them, after all. The Phillies will have to decide if they can make the numbers work. If they feel this is their window to win a World Series, they might. Besides, they know true aces are hard to come by, and perhaps nobody in baseball has been better the past four years than Wheeler. Why let him go?