There is no such thing as a good deal at the top of the free-agent market. Up here, Black Friday has a more literal connotation.
Instead of Brian Cashman jabbing Theo Epstein in the eye with the business end of an industrial mop to get to the last Furby, you get Matt Klentak dictating a press release in the same tone of voice he uses when he learns his Subaru Outback needs a thousand bucks’ worth of repairs to pass inspection. The Phillies have signed free-agent pitcher Zack Wheeler to a five-year contract worth $118 million. Now, where does Andy MacPhail keep the whiskey that comes in a plastic bottle?
There are those who will eagerly point out that the current administration is hardly a helpless victim of baseball’s invisible backhand. Despite the slapstick missteps of the previous regime, which graciously bequeathed a bloated payroll and barren farm system to its successors, Klentak has had four years to build a roster that would have lessened his need to acquiesce to the demands of a soon-to-be 30-year-old starting pitcher who has never logged 200 innings in a season that the Phillies make him one of the highest-paid players at his position in recent free-agent history.
It is a fair point. Whatever your overall opinion of the capabilities of Klentak and his lieutenants, the fact of the matter is that they have failed to extract much value from one of the few areas of the labor market where there is value to be had.
When the Cubs advanced to the NLCS in Theo Epstein’s fourth season as chief personnel executive, they were paying Jake Arrieta and Jason Hammel a total of $12.63 million for 64 starts and 399 2/3 innings of starting pitching. Both were acquired in trades, as was 25-year-old No. 3 starter Kyle Hendricks, along with Chicago’s top three setup men in the bullpen. Closer Hector Rondon was a Rule 5 draft pick.
All these moves were accomplished by Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer in less time than the Phillies have already afforded Klentak and MacPhail, their team president. That’s not to say that Epstein and Hoyer should constitute the baseline against which all personnel operations are measured. They are simply evidence of the un-outlandishness of any thought that the Phillies should be further along than they are now.
Even if they were not yet contenders — which, even with Wheeler, they most assuredly are not — it was not unreasonable to expect that Klentak and Co. would be finished with their transformation of their roster from demolition site to foundation.
The original blueprint called for the Phillies to spend two or three seasons spinning off their few remaining assets, rebuilding their base of young talent via trades and draft picks and international signings, and using their major-league roster as an audition stage, thus maximizing their chances of uncovering a legitimate player or two who would not have had the opportunity to reveal himself on a team striving for wins.
Alas, something went wrong with this construction project. Three years after it began, the concrete still had not set. The young talent that was supposed to serve as the foundation for the future failed to mature.
Maikel Franco, Cesar Hernandez, Odubel Herrera, Nick Williams, J.P. Crawford, Cornelius Randolph — not a single one of them emerged as a legitimate first-division hitter. The failure was particularly acute in the pitching ranks. Jake Thompson, Mark Appel, Zach Eflin, Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez — the Phillies followed the plan and gave each one every conceivable opportunity to develop. But by the start of last offseason, it was apparent to any objective observer that none would succeed.
Now, instead of bedrock, the Phillies are attempting to build a roster on paper, on the tens of millions of dollars that had been burning a hole in John Middleton’s vault as he waited impatiently to bring that damn trophy back. For a big-market club like the Phillies, it is not impossible for free-agent dollars to do the work of amateur scouting and minor-league development and value trading. But success in such an endeavor requires a level of decision-making that is at odds with the reality of the free-agent market.
Jake Arrieta, Pat Neshek, Tommy Hunter, David Robertson — together, they serve as a case study of the peril of such a formula. The reality of the market is that each of those players was available to the Phillies for a reason: They wanted to be paid what they were worth, and 29 other front offices concluded that they were not worth as much as the Phillies were willing to pay them.
In deciding to pay them, the Phillies reduced their margin for error when deciding whether to pay Patrick Corbin, who ultimately signed a six-year, $140 million deal with the Nationals. Corbin proceeded to win a World Series in Washington.
The Phillies, on the other hand, found themselves mired in a 162-game fait accompli thanks to a rotation that was at least two competent starters shy of playoff-caliber.
The result of all of this is the contract that, on Wednesday, they agreed to give Wheeler. Like each of the preceding signings, this one can be justified with the simple rationale that he is better than what they had.
Wheeler might not be as sexy of a name as Stephen Strasburg or Madison Bumgarner, but there is plenty of reason to think that he will prove to be equal or better. Over the last two seasons, he has averaged 30 starts and 189 innings, with strikeout, walk, and home run numbers that suggest he has pitched even better than his 3.65 ERA.
There is reason to believe that the two or three best seasons of Wheeler’s career will come with him wearing a Phillies uniform. The last three years have seen him build himself back up from a two-year absence because of Tommy John surgery. In 2019, he posted the highest average fastball velocity of his career. At nearly 97 mph, it is two ticks higher than it was before his surgery. Most significantly, his slider is back to where it was in his excellent 2014 season, a heavy, biting, off-speed pitch that does not exist elsewhere in the rotation.
Yet the price the Phillies paid does not reflect the amount of projection involved in the signing. At $23.6 million per year, the average annual value of the deal is slightly north of what the Nationals agreed to pay Corbin. Corbin’s deal included one more guaranteed year, but he was also one year younger than Wheeler is. At the moment, the Nationals are obligated to pay their guy $116.7 million over five years, compared with the $118 million over five that the Phillies will pay Wheeler.
Keep in mind, Corbin came to the Nationals with a pair of 200-inning seasons to his credit, including a sparkling 2018 campaign in which numbers dwarfed any that Wheeler has posted. In hindsight, Corbin’s contract with his 2019 production represents a far better value than Wheeler’s deal, especially when combined with the lack of production the Phillies got from the rotation spot that Corbin would have occupied last season.
The series of decisions is emblematic of the snowball that every team pushes when it attempts to use free agency to make up for its failure to grow its own talent. It is wet and heavy and filled with dirt and anti-skid. The ground upon which it travels gets steeper by the minute.
Wheeler was a necessity, given the destination the Phillies have targeted. But if he does not work out, or the Phillies do not find a way to balance their increasingly bloated payroll with a crop of young, cost-controlled talent, they will be sprinting down an alpine slope with a millstone barreling at their heels.