PHILADELPHIA – The Philadelphia Phillies, a year after neglecting to add a starting pitcher, have appeared to learn from their missteps. They agreed to terms Wednesday with former Mets righthander Zack Wheeler on a 5-year, $118 million contract, a source said, to begin an offseason that centers around their rotation.
Wheeler, 29, is not Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg, the two premier pitchers on the market, but he could develop into an elite arm. He has a powerful fastball and was finally healthy the last two seasons after injuries hindered him for most of the previous three.
The Phillies will slot him into a rotation headed by Aaron Nola, and they will likely add another starter to accompany Jake Arrieta and Zach Eflin, Vince Velasquez, or Nick Pivetta. Their pursuit of starting pitching is not yet finished.
Wheeler missed the entire 2015 and 2016 seasons after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He then made just 17 starts in 2017 because of a series of arm complications. Healthy for 2018 and 2019, Wheeler combined for a 3.65 ERA and averaged 8.9 strikeouts per nine innings over 60 starts.
His average fastball last season was 97 mph, as his velocity moved beyond what it was before his injury. Just four pitchers – Noah Syndergaard, Gerrit Cole, Luis Severino, and Jacob deGrom – have thrown more 97-mph-or-greater pitches than Wheeler over the last two seasons. He has thrown 1,111. Phillies starters have thrown 40. Just two National League clubs have thrown fewer than the Phillies.
Similar to Patrick Corbin last winter, the attraction to Wheeler is what he could become more so than what he has done. The Phillies passed on Corbin, who also underwent Tommy John surgery, and watched him post a 3.25 ERA with Washington.
The Phillies had just one starter last season finish with an ERA better than 4.22. Their rotation had the fifth-highest ERA in the National League, allowed homers at the third-highest rate, and recorded the sixth-lowest strikeout rate. There were a slew of reasons the Phillies missed the playoffs for the eighth straight season, but the troubles of the starting rotation topped the list.
That is why manager Joe Girardi said Tuesday night that “pitching has been a focus for us.” The Phillies will improve their lineup, they’ll add reinforcements for their bench, and they’ll search for upgrades for their bullpen. But the success of this offseason will be defined by how their starting rotation looks in February when the team arrives at spring training. Signing Wheeler is a start.
“He knows it’s important that we add pitching,” Girardi said of general manager Matt Klentak. “You go into a season thinking that you’re going to need five starters and you always need six, seven, eight because things happen. They have been working hard, and we keep our fingers crossed.”