SAN DIEGO — If the third-largest free-agent contract in franchise history didn’t say it all, Phillies officials weren’t bashful Monday about slathering praise on newly signed pitcher Zack Wheeler.
“Well, I think you’re going to have a 1 and a 1A with him and [Aaron] Nola,” manager Joe Girardi said as the winter meetings began at the Manchester Grand Hyatt. “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.”
Added general manager Matt Klentak: “We felt it was important to add someone to our rotation that could pair with Aaron Nola at the top of the rotation. I feel like, in adding Zack Wheeler, we’ve done that. I think those two are as good as any twosome you’ll find in the league.”
After re-signing Stephen Strasburg on Monday, the Washington Nationals might beg to differ.
Regardless, five days after agreeing to contract terms, the Phillies finalized a five-year, $118 million deal for Wheeler, who has neither worked 200 innings in a season nor made an All-Star team. His appeal was based on an opinion shared by many talent evaluators that the 29-year-old right-hander’s upside outweighs his past performance. He has had back-to-back healthy seasons and thrown only 749 1/3 innings in his career.
The Phillies believe they can unlock Wheeler’s potential by studying his pitch usage. In particular, they might talk to him about using his curveball more and his sinker less. New pitching coach Bryan Price will take the lead in that area, while Girardi also believes catcher J.T. Realmuto will be a positive influence.
“This is a power guy with four pitches, where I think he’s just starting to reach his potential,” Girardi said. “I think there is more in the tank there. I think this guy can be more dominant than he’s been.”
Further context for the Phillies’ decision to jump at the chance to sign Wheeler, even if it meant paying him more than they initially expected, came when the rival Nationals rocked the first day of the meetings by signing Strasburg to a seven-year, $245 million contract, a free-agent record for a pitcher that surpassed David Price’s $217 million overall value and Zack Greinke’s $34.4 million average-annual value.
Strasburg’s deal sets up a bidding war for Gerrit Cole, the most-prized pitcher on the market. The New York Yankees and Los Angeles Angels are reportedly vying for the 29-year-old right-hander. One executive speculated that left-hander Madison Bumgarner might now be in line for a nine-figure deal that might wind up rivaling Wheeler’s.
The Phillies determined that the cost to acquire Cole and Strasburg would exceed most industry predictions and be particularly prohibitive given their other needs, including a third baseman or shortstop and more pitching help. They also believed that Wheeler was the best pitcher in the second tier of free agents. Although Bumgarner has a longer track record and is the best postseason pitcher of his generation, he has thrown more than 1,000 innings more than Wheeler.
“We felt like this is a player who over the last two years has demonstrated that he is still on the ascent of his career and pitches with as good of stuff as just about anybody in the league from a velocity, power perspective,” Klentak said. “We felt like this particular pitcher provides additional upside beyond what he’s demonstrated so far.”