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Phillies in mix for free-agent pitcher Zack Wheeler as bidding heats up, source says

The 29-year-old right-hander could choose a team before the winter meetings begin next week, and the Phillies are among his most aggressive suitors.

Zack Wheeler has emerged as a prime free-agent target for the Phillies.
Zack Wheeler has emerged as a prime free-agent target for the Phillies.Read moreMatt Rourke / AP

Nine months ago, Matt Klentak sat in his office overlooking the Phillies' spring-training ballpark and thought about a road not taken.

“Had it been a different first move that we made — had we signed Patrick Corbin, for example — it would’ve taken us down a different path,” the general manager said. “Not necessarily a worse path, but a different one, and I don’t know what that would have looked like.”

Klentak has a chance now to find out.

The Phillies are engaged in the pursuit of free-agent pitcher Zack Wheeler, a source said Wednesday, confirming an report. A handful of teams are still in the running, with bidding for the 29-year-old right-hander believed to be reaching the five-year, $100 million range. The guarantee of a sixth year would likely seal a deal, which could be completed before the start of the winter meetings next week in San Diego, according to another source.

It’s unclear which teams represent the Phillies’ biggest competition for Wheeler, late of the New York Mets, although the report lists the Cincinnati Reds, Chicago White Sox and Texas Rangers as being “involved.” The Mets have other needs and seemed to brace for Wheeler’s possible departure when they traded for right-hander Marcus Stroman in July.

If this all sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Wheeler’s free agency seems to be following a similar trajectory to the talks for Corbin a year ago.

A refresher: Corbin entered the market at age 29 and coming off a breakout season in which he posted personal bests in ERA (3.15), strikeouts per nine innings (11.1) and WHIP (1.05) and finally reached the 200-inning mark in a career previously pocked with injuries. The lefty visited the Phillies, New York Yankees and Washington Nationals in a three-day span after Thanksgiving and signed with the Nationals on Dec. 7 after they agreed to kick in a sixth year and bump the overall value of the contract to $140 million.

The bidding for Wheeler might not get quite so high. Then again, he’s also 29 and coming off back-to-back healthy seasons. He’s one of only 13 National League pitchers to work at least 350 innings over the last two years, and has a 3.65 ERA in that span. Like Corbin, Wheeler’s attraction to teams is based as much on future upside as it is on past performance.

The Phillies’ primary focus has been on adding two or even three pitchers to their starting rotation. But they have other needs, too, including rebuilding the bullpen and acquiring another infielder after deciding not to tender 2020 contracts to second baseman Cesar Hernandez and third baseman Maikel Franco.

While the Phillies are monitoring the early formation of the markets for prized free-agent starters Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, it seems more likely that they will spread their money around rather than spending the bulk of it on one big fish.

"When you start to talk about spending money on free agents, it's the combination of free agents that is important," manager Joe Girardi said Tuesday night. "If you're able to get this one guy, it might change what you're able to do with a couple other people, and so on and so forth. It's the combination."

Across baseball, talent evaluators view Wheeler as the best option in a second tier of free-agent pitchers that also includes lefties Madison Bumgarner and Hyun-Jin Ryu. Bumgarner, a three-time World Series winner with the San Francisco Giants and the most accomplished postseason pitcher of his generation, is only nine months older than Wheeler but has pitched more than 1,000 more innings, not including his substantial October workload.

Wheeler could slot in behind ace Aaron Nola and enable the Phillies to still pursue mid-rotation or even back-end help.

“Matt has worked really hard and he knows it’s important that we add pitching,” Girardi said. “You go into a season thinking that you’re going to need five starters and you always need six, seven, eight because things happen. They have been working hard, and we keep our fingers crossed.”

Klentak said Tuesday night that the Phillies don’t have any face-to-face meetings scheduled with free agents before the winter meetings begin Sunday night. But Girardi noted that he has spoken with a few available players.

"Pitching has been a focus for us," Girardi said.

A deal for Wheeler might be only a phone call away if the Phillies are willing to guarantee him the sixth year that they wouldn’t for Corbin.