When the book was finally closed on the Phillies’ disappointing 2019 season, much of the blame for their 81-81 record fell at the feet of the pitching staff. Aaron Nola struggled at times, Jake Arrieta was ineffective and/or hurt, Nick Pivetta started the season as the No. 2 starter and was out of the rotation within a month, Zach Eflin suffered from a “heavy body,” and Vince Velasquez was, well, what Vince Velasquez has been since he joined the rotation in 2017.
At the onset of the off-season most believed the team needed to add at least two starting pitchers to the rotation, but it became clear early on in the process that Phillies general manager Matt Klentak wanted to go with quality over quantity.
So instead of targeting two mid-rotation starters, or one elite starter and a back-of-the-rotation arm, the Phils signed Zack Wheeler to a five-year, $115 million deal, a contract that signaled they believed Wheeler had the potential to be a No. 2 starter to pair with their ace, Aaron Nola.
“I believe we can put together a back of a rotation with guys we have or players we could potentially acquire later if we need to,” Klentak said. “To add a front-of-the-rotation guy is really hard. That’s why we targeted Zack Wheeler as we did.
”In doing so, that really creates additional depth for you from a top-down perspective. It pushes some other guys into more-comfortable roles. We still do believe that Nick Pivetta has a big jump in him. We believe that Spencer Howard, at some point in the coming year, is going to impact our major-league club.” (quote via Matt Breen, Philadelphia Inquirer).
And that’s where they stopped. Klentak believed they had enough arms to compete for spots 3-5, and wanted a more reliable No. 2.
There have been indications over the last two seasons that Wheeler can be that guy. In the second half last year, he put up a 2.83 ERA in 76.1 innings, and in 2018, his second half ERA in 75.0 innings was an even-better 1.68. Last year’s 4.7 fWAR would have been highest on the team by a lot (Aaron Nola, 3.4), and his 4.2 fWAR in 2018 would have only trailed Nola’s 5.4. In ‘19, he finished with a 3.96 ERA and a 3.48 FIP and in ‘18, his end-of-season ERA was a sparkling 3.31 and a solid FIP of 3.25.
Is that enough to qualify as a true No. 2 starter for a pennant-contending team? It would seem so. His 4.7 fWAR ranked 15th among all big league starters last season, and his 4.2 fWAR in 2018 was tied for 13th-best. Raise your hand if a top-15 performance works for you.
Clearly, that’s the guy the Phils are hoping they get, and if he can straighten out some of the unevenness of his last two seasons, he could be even better. In 2018, his first half ERA was 4.44 and in the first half last year it was 4.69. Klentak and the front office saw enough in his good stretches to believe there is more of a ceiling for him. They also believed enough in new pitching coach Bryan Price to give him a shot with the holdovers from last year.
Despite Wheeler being the only big-money free agent signed this off-season (Didi Gregorius’ one-year, $14 million deal is important but not big-money), he’s not on the lips of many Phillies fans this spring. Much of the attention has focused on the battle for the No. 5 spot in the rotation, on Eflin’s comments about Chris Young, and whether or not Arrieta will finally earn the $75 million deal he signed a little more than two years ago.
Wheeler made his first start of the spring over the weekend and pitched two innings, struck out one, walked one and gave up a two-run homer in his second inning of work. His stuff has been compared to Gerrit Cole’s. He can be one of those pitchers that uses the high fastball with a down-and-in curveball to right-handers, a devastating curveball and improving changeup that hopefully will get lefties out and help him avoid the gopherball.
He really can be elite, and yet, very little attention is being paid to Wheeler. His ability to at least replicate what he’s done the last two years is perhaps even more important than those other storylines. And if Wheeler hits the ceiling the Phillies are hoping is there, he could transform this team into a scary late-season force.
On the latest episode of Hittin’ Season, we talked about Wheeler’s flying under the radar in Clearwater, the injury to Andrew McCutchen and leadoff options for the Phils in his absence, the steps forward taken by Seranthony Dominguez and predictions for Didi Gregorius’ 2020 season.