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Why Zack Wheeler compelled the Phillies to finally pay big money for a free-agent pitcher | Scott Lauber

The Phillies no longer had a choice. Save for ace Aaron Nola, their young starters haven’t matured into rotation mainstays.

Zack Wheeler's five-year, $118 million contract represents the third-largest free-agent deal ever for a Phillies player.
Zack Wheeler's five-year, $118 million contract represents the third-largest free-agent deal ever for a Phillies player.Read moreCorey Sipkin / AP

Quick, what makes you squirm?

Maybe it’s having your blood drawn. How about speaking in front of a large audience? Everyone has something that makes them really, really uncomfortable.

As general manager of the Phillies, Matt Klentak has never much liked the thought of handing out a long-term, big-money contract to a free-agent pitcher. Too much risk for not enough guaranteed reward. Buy the bats, grow the arms. That has been the mantra under Klentak and team president Andy MacPhail.

But the Phillies no longer had a choice. Save for ace Aaron Nola, their young starters haven’t matured into rotation mainstays. If it’s really “time to win right now,” as Klentak stated last month, it would be necessary to leap into the free-agent pitching swamp this winter and hope to avoid the crocs.

That’s what led them to Wednesday’s five-year, $118 million agreement with Zack Wheeler.

Wheeler has neither been an All-Star nor thrown 200 innings in a season. As the Phillies see it, though, the right-hander is the rare free agent for whom future upside still outweighs past performance.

It’s not only that Wheeler is 29 (he turns 30 in May), or that he’s coming off back-to-back healthy seasons after enduring injuries earlier in his career, or that the average velocity on his fastball last season was 96.7 mph, fourth-best in the majors. It’s that, as one talent evaluator said recently, he might still be “scratching the surface” of how good he can be.

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Indeed, Wheeler’s free agency seemed to follow a similar trajectory to prized lefty Patrick Corbin’s last year. Corbin was also 29 and coming off a breakout season in which he finally reached the 200-inning mark for the first time. The Phillies wanted Corbin but weren’t willing to guarantee a sixth year. The Washington Nationals did, bumping the overall value of the contract to $140 million.

The bidding for Wheeler was unlikely to get that high. But over the last few weeks, the demand for one of the 13 National League pitchers to work at least 350 innings over the last two years had grown to be substantial enough to push the negotiations over $100 million.

Wheeler had a breakthrough season in 2018, posting a 3.31 ERA (3.25 FIP), 179 strikeouts and a 1.124 WHIP in 182 1/3 innings for the New York Mets. He followed that with a 3.96 ERA (3.48 FIP), 195 strikeouts and a 1.259 WHIP in 195 1/3 innings this past season. In particular, he was terrific after the All-Star break, his 2.83 ERA in 12 second-half starts ranking fifth-best among NL starters.

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Across baseball, talent evaluators viewed 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.

In Bumgarner’s case, the Phillies likely believed they would have been paying for past performance, realizing that his next five years probably aren’t going to be as good as his last five. With less tread on his arm, Wheeler offers at least the hope that he has not yet reached his peak.

Wheeler’s contract represents the third-largest free-agent deal in Phillies history after Bryce Harper (13 years, $330 million) and Cliff Lee (five years, $120 million), and the third-most money that the club has doled out for a pitcher after Lee and Hamels’ six-year, $144 million extension.

Wheeler slots in behind Nola in a rotation that also figures to include Zach Eflin and $25 million man Jake Arrieta, a cautionary tale about diving headfirst for free-agent pitching, with top prospect Spencer Howard likely to start the season at triple A. The Phillies still need another arm, and a familiar face came off the board Wednesday when Cole Hamels signed a one-year, $18 million deal with the Atlanta Braves.

The Phillies will continue to monitor the markets for Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg but would jump into the bidding only if those markets collapse. Wheeler’s $23.6 million average annual value leaves room beneath the $208 million competitive-balance tax threshold -- albeit only about $18-20 million -- to add at least one more starter, remake the bullpen, and acquire a shortstop or a third baseman.

Those needs will require creative solutions.

“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 earlier this week. “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.”

Indeed, it was a combination of factors that caused Klentak to choose Wheeler as the free-agent pitcher for whom the nine-figure leap was at least a little less uncomfortable.