It was a good free-agent first step, but nothing more than that. Zack Wheeler, for five years at $23.6 million per year, instantly made the Phillies’ starting rotation better and left the rival New York Mets with a void to fill.

When the Mets went on a spectacular run and played 20 games over .500 after the All-Star break, it was Wheeler who rose up as the team’s second-best starter behind Jacob deGrom, going 5-2 with a 2.83 ERA in his final 12 starts of the season.

But that does not change the fact that Wheeler was a pedestrian pitcher during the first half of the season when the Mets played so poorly that they irreversibly destroyed their playoff hopes. Wheeler, after getting beat up by the Phillies on July 7 at Citi Field, went into the All-Star break with a 4.69 ERA.

Vince Velasquez and Zach Eflin both had lower ERAs at the time. Wheeler, of course, has a lot better track record than both those guys, but he also has a past that included seasons lost to Tommy John surgery in 2015 and 2016.

The Phillies have gambled a sizable chunk of cash and relinquished their second pick in next year’s draft because they believe the best years are still ahead for Wheeler, a 29-year-old right-hander who was drafted by San Francisco with the sixth overall pick in 2009.

Maybe they’re right. Regardless, Wheeler’s signing should be the lesser of the two major moves the Phillies make in an effort to improve the starting pitching. Last offseason, general manager Matt Klentak did nothing in that regard. Now, with the winter meetings just a few days away, he has to do more.

Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg are the pitching grand prizes on this year’s market and it would be disappointing to learn that the Phillies were not in that chase. If managing partner John Middleton wants to play with the big boys, then he needs to be going up against the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Los Angeles Angels for the services of the two premier pitchers.

San Francisco Giants lefty Madison Bumgarner is the best left-handed starter on the free-agent market.
John Hefti / AP
San Francisco Giants lefty Madison Bumgarner is the best left-handed starter on the free-agent market.

Some things, of course, are out of a team’s control. If Strasburg and Cole, a couple of Southern California natives, decide they want to pitch on the West Coast for the next half-dozen years, then there is nothing the Phillies can do about that. But if either of the two elite starters ends up signing with the Yankees simply for more money, then that will be disappointing.

Remember, the Phillies will likely subtract $25 million from their payroll after next season when Jake Arrieta’s contract expires, so they will have the salary space going forward to pay another premium pitcher.

If the Phillies cannot get Cole or Strasburg, there are other quality arms worth pursuing in this market. The very respectable second tier includes three lefties – Madison Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Dallas Keuchel -- and it’s no secret that the Phillies have needed a left-hander in the rotation since Cole Hamels’ departure at the 2015 trade deadline.

Hamels, of course, could have filled that void, but he decided Wednesday to accept a one-year deal worth $18 million from the Atlanta Braves. Hamels’ return to Philadelphia would have made for a great story, but the truth is the three lefties still on the market are better fits for the Phillies.

One baseball source indicated that the Phillies are more likely to go after one of the second-tier lefties rather than pursue Cole or Strasburg.

If that’s the case, Bumgarner should be the primary target, although at this point the Phillies have not been tied to the four-time All-Star and former World Series MVP. Bumgarner’s price would likely be the highest among the second-tier pitchers still on the market, but at 30 he’s younger than Ryu (33 in March) and Keuchel (32 on Jan. 1) and he’s the most decorated and the fiercest competitor of the bunch.

If the Phillies settle for someone like Wade Miley to fill their need for a left-handed starter, that would be acceptable only if they also landed a superstar like Anthony Rendon to play third base.

For now, they have Zack Wheeler. It’s a nice start, but nothing more.