The team was looking for a starter. Their pitching staff wasn’t working out too well and they knew they had some openings in the rotation.
They also knew that it couldn’t be just a pitcher, one that ate innings and was league average across the board. No, they needed a pitcher to front a rotation, to start a postseason series, to be the one that ends losing streaks.
They needed an ace.
Luckily for the Phillies, there was one available for the taking that offseason. Gerrit Cole reached free agency as the premier target among starting pitchers. The Phillies had a stated need to get a top of the rotation pitcher, but instead of breaking the bank for Cole, they instead grabbed Zack Wheeler and allowed Cole to go to the open arms of the New York Yankees.
What if Gerrit Cole had signed with the Phillies instead of Zack Wheeler?
The Phillies were interested in Cole. That isn’t “fake news”, that is real with evidence to confirm as much.
Interested teams are summiting offers on Gerrit Cole by early next week. Top of market could move fast. Everyone who’s serious understands it will be a record deal for a pitcher (current record holder: David Price, 217M). In addition to NYY, teams linked: LAA, LAD, PHI, TEX— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) December 7, 2019
Take a Heyman rumor with a grain of salt of course, but the idea of adding an ace during that winter had merit. After all, they had signed Zack Wheeler around the time this tweet from Heyman was published, so the smoke caused by their pursuit of an ace on the free agent market wasn’t without fire.
Still, one has to think what would have happened if Cole had been in the initial, and ultimately successful, target instead of Wheeler. A couple of things might have been a factor. First and foremost was clearly price. Seeing the final results of negotiations between Cole and the Yankees (9/$324M), one can see that adding $200 million more to a guarantee would be appealing to the player. If the Phillies were already on to the fact that it would take a massive and historic outlay, that might be the reason they had moved on.
Second was that they might have seen something that could be unlocked in Wheeler that they could help take to the next level. Having the 2020 season shortened so much meant the team would lose a year of his prime, but the Phillies finally saw in 2021 that there was actually still some potential to be tapped into with Wheeler since he’s a Cy Young finalist. Considering that grabbing this potential at $200 million less than what it would eventually cost to sign Cole meant they could use some of that money to sign someone else, something they were very much interested in doing that very same offseason (yes, yes I know, consider the source).
Still, Cole was a ready made ace. There was no hoping for potential because it was already there. The Astros had tapped into and it....stuck to him.
Why not just get the guy that was already great?
Since the signings of Cole and Wheeler were so recent, we have a shorter amount of time to reflect on. We can wonder had they signed Cole, maybe their chances of making the expanded postseason in 2020 go up. Assuming that Covid-19 was going to ravage our way of life regardless of who the Phillies signed, throwing Cole out there every fifth day instead of Wheeler could have bought the team an extra win or two. Cole did finish fourth in Cy Young voting in 2020, but looking at his numbers compared to Wheeler, would it have made much of a difference?
Cole: 73 IP, 94 K, 17 BB, 14 HR, 2.84 ERA (3.89 FIP)
Wheeler: 71 IP, 53 K, 16 BB, 3 HR, 2.92 ERA (3.22 FIP)
Cole struck out almost double the amount of batters Wheeler did, but their ERA’s were essentially the same. Wheeler’s xERA of 3.54 suggests he got a bit lucky with his pitching, while Cole’s xERA of 3.08 suggests he did almost exactly what was expected considering his numbers. All of this to say is that the difference between them was very small, maybe a better start or two that Cole could have provided the Phillies. That one better start though might have been the difference considering the team finished one game behind Milwaukee for the final playoff spot last year.
This year, it’s pretty hard to imagine that the Phillies would have wanted Cole over Wheeler anyway. 2021 was the best season Wheeler has ever done, one that some could argue was superior to Cole’s. The Phillies’ ace did finish with more strikeouts this year than Cole (247 to 243), but he also needed thirty more innings to do so. All of the other numbers are so similar they could be a toss-up, but those thirty innings are not insignificant. Giving the team innings meant the bullpen was throwing fewer of them in his starts which, considering the makeup of the bullpen, was a good thing.
We don’t know what the future holds, of course, with these two pitchers, but what we do know is that the Phillies only have Wheeler for three more years while Cole is in New York for another seven. If either or both start to decline, the Phillies will be much happier that they aren’t going to have to pay their starter for those decline years. They will have moved on and found someone to fill his shoes. If Cole starts to decline, the Yankees will be stuck with an albatross contract that is virtually unmovable. You’d have to assume they knew this risk and were fine taking it so long as the years they got were elite, even if those were only a few in number.
So what if the Phillies had signed Cole instead of Wheeler? Best we can posit is that maybe they had a postseason appearance in 2020, at best, but the idea of being saddled with that long of a contract still at the amount of money sours the idea. I think the Phillies did just fine with their signing.