The Philadelphia Phillies are taking a huge risk by agreeing to sign Zack Wheeler for $118 million, but they still need to do more.
The Philadelphia Phillies are going for it – still. This time with the addition of free agent pitcher Zack Wheeler.
When it came to their rebuilding plans over the past few years, the Phillies didn’t try very hard to keep the rest of the league in the dark. They would develop their prospects and then plow hundreds of millions of dollars into the free-agent market when said prospects began reaching the big leagues.
Philadelphia deemed it time to begin a spending binge after the 2017 season when they signed Jake Arrieta and Carlos Santana for a total of $135 million guaranteed over three years. They followed that up with their biggest move ever, inking Bryce Harper for $330 million, also flipping Santana’s $60-million deal to take on Jean Segura’s $71-million deal and trading for All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto, presumably with an eye on extending him to a long-term contract.
The Phillies have done a whole lot to rebuild their franchise after the Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Cliff Lee, Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay championship days came to an end, but their efforts have yielded very little in terms of winning. The Phillies are just 161-163 since switching from rebuild mode to throwing money around like the 1990s New York Yankees. This offseason they fired hotshot analytics-first manager Gabe Kapler and replaced him with old school Joe Girardi. Few of their prospects have lived up to the hype, and Maikel Franco was mercifully non-tendered after six underwhelming years. Odubel Herrera’s career in Philly may be over after an ugly domestic violence incident and Aaron Nola is the only pitcher from the pipeline who can be counted on to log consistent innings.
All of that is to say, the Phillies aren’t much closer to winning a championship than when they started their rebuild. To make matters worse, their roster looks to be fourth-best in a division that features the Washington Nationals, fresh off a World Series title, Atlanta Braves, led by one of the most dynamic lineups in baseball and the New York Mets, armed with four dominant starting pitchers. With a farm system completely tapped out by trades, the only path forward for the Phillies is spending, spending and spending to try and push themselves over the hump.
With all that in mind, it should not come as a total surprise that the Phillies have agreed to give right-hander Zack Wheeler the nine-figure contract he was seeking. It’s five years and $118 million fully guaranteed to a starter who has not actually completed five healthy seasons in the major leagues. It’s not necessarily a reach given Wheeler’s talent levels, but it is a huge gamble.
Armed with one of the most lucrative TV deals in baseball, the Phillies can essentially spend whatever they want on free agents, but that doesn’t mean they should. Wheeler has done very little in his career to prove he is worth $100 million or more. He has missed two entire seasons with arm injuries and has never thrown more than 200 innings. Wheeler’s best season in the big leagues came in 2018 when he finished 12-7 with a 3.31 ERA in 182.1 innings with 8.8 strikeouts per nine.
Entering his age-30 season, Wheeler is still being viewed by the market as the hotshot prospect who headlined the Carlos Beltran trade all the way back in 2011.
A $100-million contract for a pitcher who has made only 126 career starts is all about betting on potential, but even with all that potential, Wheeler’s highest upside appears to be No. 3 starter in a rotation with two dominant arms at the top. Wheeler is still intriguing enough with his upper-90s fastball, power breaking ball and solid command, but is that really enough to warrant a five-year deal at $20-million per year? Risk seems to be back on for teams signing free agents based on some of the deals being signed in the early going this offseason.
The Phillies have convinced themselves that the only way to take the next step is to give out at least one massive contract per winter, but that same approach is what brought the last championship window to a screeching halt. Even with Wheeler, the Phillies still seem be at least two starters away from being able to match the top teams in their division. Their bullpen is weak and their starting lineup needs a third baseman and two outfielders before it can offer Harper the type of protection he needs to live up to his massive contract.
The Wheeler contract is a huge gamble for the Phillies, but it cannot be their last major move this winter. All-Star third basemen Josh Donaldson and Anthony Rendon are still on the market, as are a handful of veteran starters like Madison Bumgarner and Dallas Keuchel. With the added $23.6 million per year for Wheeler, they have just under $20 million to go before they hit the luxury tax. Over $30 million comes off the books after the 2020 season, so the Phillies can take the hit on paying the tax for one year if that’s what it takes to land another big bat or starter.
The Phillies made a calculated wager on Wheeler, but their roster is still not even good enough to enter next season as a favorite for a playoff spot. Ownership will have to open the checkbook at least one more time.