This isn’t a take meant to drum up buzz the week before the MLB Winter Meetings.
But former New York Mets right-hander Zack Wheeler may sign before the MLB Winter Meetings – which begin in earnest next Monday – according to RADIO.COM’s Jon Heyman. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic says that he’s likely to sign a five-year deal in excess of $100 million.
Wheeler has a 3.77 ERA and 3.71 FIP in five seasons with the Mets. Over the past two seasons with the Mets, he’s tied with Aaron Nola for the ninth-highest fWAR among starting pitchers at 8.9. There’s a feeling from many that Wheeler has only scratched the surface of his potential and could be unlocked in the right situation. Even as his price rises, there’s a very strong case to be made that he’s the best option on the free-agent market outside of Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg.
Then again, why are we evaluating this through the perspective of “the best options outside of Cole and Strasburg”?
Strasburg, the reigning World Series MVP, is 31, a veteran of Tommy John surgery and hasn’t consistently stayed healthy throughout his career. MLB Trade Rumors projects he’ll land a six-year/$180 million free-agent deal this offseason, which would feel like quite the risk given his age and health history.
Those same concerns don’t exist with Cole. He’s been arguably the best pitcher in the sport over the past two seasons, and he’s only 29. He’s topped the 200 innings mark in four of the last five seasons.
Signing Cole, of course, wouldn’t be cheap. MLB Trade Rumors projects he’ll sign an eight-year/$256 million deal. The guess here is he’ll ultimately only be guaranteed seven years. But with legitimate interest from the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Angels, he has the opportunity to maximize his value.
Additionally, the Phillies would have to relinquish their second-highest draft pick and $500,000 of international signing bonus pool money to sign Cole because the Astros extended a qualifying offer to him. Then again, that would be true if they signed Strasburg, Wheeler or Madison Bumgarner as well.
But yes, signing Cole won’t be cheap. He’s on the right side of 30, coming off of one of the best halves of baseball that a pitcher has ever had and has a good health history. He’s probably the most attractive pitcher to reach the free-agent market since Max Scherzer after the 2014 season.
Phillies managing partner John Middleton was correct when he told Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia that it’s not sustainable to sign the top free agent every offseason. It’s also true, though, that there probably won’t be a starting pitcher as appealing as Cole that will reach the open market for at least another half decade. In five years, Bryce Harper will be 32, Aaron Nola will be 32 and J.T. Realmuto will be 33, going on 34.
Let’s say the Phillies spread their resources to two starting pitchers, as opposed to just Cole. In the most optimistic – and probably unrealistic – scenario, that would be Cole Hamels and Madison Bumgarner. At this stage of each of their careers, would that duo improve the Phillies more than just adding Cole at the top of the Phillies rotation? Reasonable people can disagree, but the feeling here is that it wouldn’t. It’s hard to make any case the Phillies would be better off for the next three seasons with Bumgarner and Hamels than Cole, especially as Hamels approaches his late 30s.
If the Phillies are hell-bent on returning to the postseason for the first time since 2011 next season, it’s likely going to take 95-100 wins to win the National League East. There’s a very real chance that it will take 90 plus wins to win a National League Wild Card spot in 2020. Both of these predictions will likely be true for the foreseeable future.
To get to 95-100 wins, the Phillies aren’t just Cole away. That’s why they continue to be connected to Didi Gregorius and Josh Donaldson. They need to add some juice to the bullpen, whether that’s in the form of former New York Yankee Dellin Betances, or the recently non-tendered Blake Treinen. To compete for the National League East title in 2020, Spencer Howard and Alec Bohm, the organization’s top two prospects, may need to come of age at the major league level after the All-Star Break, if not sooner.
But the Phillies biggest need is another front-line starter. Cole is as front-line of a starter as there is in baseball right now. Signing him would almost certainly require going over the luxury tax for a season, something Middleton said earlier this offseason he would only do for a Cliff Lee-type opportunity. Over the past two years, Cole is pitching at a level on par with Lee’s peak. 2020 will be his age-29 season, meaning he’s three years younger than Lee was when the Phillies signed him to a five-year/$120 million deal ahead of the 2011 season.
The Phillies, from an organizational sense, aren’t at the same stage as they were after 2010, when they were coming off of four consecutive National League East titles. But the way they’ve spent in recent years – and how they’ve spoken publicly – makes you think they are in win-now mode. There’s no guarantee if the Phillies placed the highest offer in front of Cole that he would accept it. But if they’re as serious about returning to the postseason as they say, they should make him decline the highest offer.
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