Right-handed free agent Zack Wheeler may have the most upside of any pitcher on the market, but he is not risk free; which MLB team should take a chance?
Few teams’ pitchers have captured the league’s imagination more than the New York Mets since 2013. Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler and Steven Matz were this decade’s answer to Generation K, another famous group of power-armed Mets prospects. Just like Generation K, this current iteration of young starters struggled to sustain the hype. Only deGrom and Syndergaard have escaped the first few years of their career without major injury. Wheeler missed nearly three full seasons, Harvey’s career is on life support and Matz has finished over 150 innings only twice in five years.
Wheeler gets to test free agency this offseason and is finally healthy. The 29-year-old missed all of 2015 and 2016 recovering from elbow injuries and made only 17 starts in 2017, covering 86.1 innings with a 5.21 ERA. The right-hander with an electric fastball and slider finally reached full health over the last two seasons and was able to average 189 innings per year on 60 total starts. It was a long time coming, but Wheeler proved he has lost none of the talent that had many analysts calling him the best prospect in the Mets’ loaded farm system.
Across parts of five MLB seasons, Wheeler is 44-38 with a 3.77 ERA. He was 18-16 with a 3.50 ERA in his first two seasons and is 23-15 with a 3.65 ERA over the last two. Wheeler has struck out just under a batter per inning for his entire career and is one of the best in the league at inducing weak contact thanks to his heavy fastball and strong command.
Two years ago, the idea of an MLB team committing five years and close to $100 million to sign a pitcher who had logged 86.1 innings in three years would have been met with raucous laughter, but Wheeler has shown enough over the last two years to warrant a team taking the risk that he can continue building up, surge past 200 innings and blossom into a true ace.
The potential is there and Wheeler remains young, but which team will take the plunge?
5. Cincinnati Reds
The Reds are going to be a surprise contender to sign a high-end free agent this year after fielding a surprisingly competitive club in 2019. Unlike years past, where the Reds hopes for success were pinned on winning slugfests in their small ballpark, last year’s team had the fourth-best ERA in the National League. The Reds should have a strong rotation once again next season, led by Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, Anthony DeSclafani and a full year of Trevor Bauer.
Cincinnati had a stellar offseason last winter, adding Gray and finding a way to help him return to his old form. Adding Wheeler would give them arguably the best rotation in the NL Central. If Joey Votto can dial in one more All-Star season, Eugenio Suarez hits over 40 home runs again and Jesse Winker and Nick Senzel continue to develop, the Reds will surprise a lot of people and stay in the playoff race all year.
They’re a long shot to come up with enough money for Wheeler, but cannot be ruled out.