The two most powerful people in the Philadelphia Phillies’ organization were adamant Sunday that the team doesn’t plan to trade righty Zack Wheeler, although it may have been too late to put the toothpaste back in the tube in regards to the fact that they at least tested the waters with other potential suitors.
Sunday morning, ESPN‘s Buster Olney set Twitter ablaze with his report that the Phillies were “open to offers” for Wheeler, who just completed the first year of a five-year/$118 million free-agent contract.
President Andy MacPhail denied the report rather quickly.
“There’s no validity to it,” MacPhail told Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia. “Zack is very much in our plans going forward.”
Managing partner John Middleton also denied the report in a discussion with Salisbury, but later spoke directly to Olney, attempting to make clear just how uninterested the Phillies are in moving Wheeler.
“If they offered me Babe Ruth, I wouldn’t trade him,” Middleton told Olney. “I have authorized no one to have a conversation about trading him.”
Still, Olney is one of the most respected insiders in the history of the sport. If he reports that multiple other “high-ranking executives” have told him that the Phillies have expressed a willingness to hear offers for Wheeler, it’s hard to think there’s no validity to it.
When pressed by Olney, Middleton simply responded by saying that the other executives were “lying” to him.
Monday, multiple other insiders confirmed Olney’s original report, suggesting that executives around the sport probably aren’t in cahoots to leak false information about the intentions of the Phillies.
Olney’s ESPN colleague Jeff Passan says that “three high-ranking executives on other teams confirmed to me that Olney’s reporting was accurate.” Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic wrote that “sources confirm the Phillies indeed were talking quietly with clubs about Wheeler.”
What does it all mean? Not necessarily anything. Middleton had such a strong response to the Wheeler reports yesterday that it squashes any possible idea of moving him. And that’s good news for the Phillies, considering Wheeler posted a 2.92 ERA and 3.22 FIP in his first season with the team.
Clearly, Middleton himself wasn’t the person that left officials from other teams with the impression that Wheeler was potentially on the table. But someone in the organization did. And while it’s a bit difficult to sift through who that might be given the current structure – or lack thereof – in the team’s front office, there is a bigger takeaway here than worrying about who exactly is having these discussions on an interim basis.
If interim general manager Ned Rice – or anyone else that has accumulated power in the front office – signaled to teams that the Phillies were open to moving Wheeler, why would they have done that? Of course, you go through the normal caveats of saying that there’s virtually no one that is untouchable, blah, blah, blah. But Wheeler was excellent in his first season with the Phillies, and formed a rather dominant one-two punch at the top of the team’s starting rotation with Aaron Nola. If the Phillies want to compete in the next few seasons, there isn’t a baseball reason for trading Wheeler.
Was there a financial motive for Rice or whoever to see whether there was a team willing to take on the $96.5 million still owed to Wheeler over the next four seasons? Rosenthal says that a team source told him that Middleton hasn’t told the front office that they should look to attempt to “shed existing contracts,” though perhaps he didn’t need to.
Rob Maadi of The Associated Press has reported that the Phillies lost $145 million during the pandemic-shortened season. Middleton has said that re-signing two-time All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto is a priority, but also said that uncertainty about whether and to what extent fans will be able to attend games in 2021 will directly affect the team’s budget for next season. In addition to Realmuto, Didi Gregorius is a free agent, and the team is tasked with rebuilding a historically-bad bullpen.
Perhaps there was a consideration from within the organization of seeing if they could find a taker for Wheeler, taking that proposal to Middleton and, if accepted, using those savings as a way to keep Realmuto and/or address other needs on the roster. When you say it out loud, the whole scenario seems kind of unrealistic. Also, Wheeler was probably more valuable in 2021 than Realmuto and Gregorius, and there’s a very real chance his deal ages better than a new one for either of the other two would.
Then again, Middleton revealed to Phillies Nation at the outset of this offseason that he had reservations about the February of 2019 trade with the Miami Marlins that brought Realmuto to the Phillies without a long-term extension. The Phillies got two extremely productive seasons from Realmuto, but now he’s a free agent and the piece at the forefront of the return to the Marlins, Sixto Sánchez, looked like a potential star in his first major league experience.
Ultimately, Middleton was talked into signing off on the deal because the baseball people within the organization – then-general manager Matt Klentak, Rice, MacPhail – believed they could get an extension done with Realmuto. Klentak is no longer the general manager, but he’s still in the organization, and while Rice and MacPhail almost certainly won’t be in their current roles a year from now, they remain in positions of power currently, and would probably prefer that the legacy of their regime isn’t that they gave up a potential frontline starter for Realmuto and then allowed him to leave in free agency.
The truth is, we’ll probably never know exactly what went into Wheeler’s name appearing in trade rumors. What it feels safe to say is that while three of the most credible insiders didn’t get this story wrong, Wheeler’s future in Philly is about as safe as anyone on the roster now. What that means for Realmuto, Gregorius and others is less clear.
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