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Zack Wheeler vs. payroll flexibility: Who ya got?

Replacing an ace with lesser players would not make the Phillies better

MLB: San Diego Padres at Philadelphia Phillies
Zack Wheeler is paid a lot of money. That’s okay because Zack Wheeler is really good.
Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, ESPN “expert” Buster Olney discussed players who could be on the move at the trade deadline, and said this about the Phillies:

You’d assume that some team would ask the Philadelphia Phillies if they are interested in talking about Zack Wheeler—and Philadelphia would be crazy not to explore the possibilities of what the return for Wheeler would be, with the right-hander dominating, and how the resulting payroll flexibility might work for them in 2022,” Olney wrote. “For the record: Phillies owner John Middleton declared during the winter he would not trade Wheeler for Babe Ruth.

Local talk radio hosts did as talk radio hosts do and tried to spark discussion on the matter. Some drew the “defend the take” cards, while others were chosen to denounce the take. It seemed that callers and Twitter poll responders were also split in their opinions, and while I am not surprised, I’m still confused by fans who would be in favor of trading Wheeler.

I assumed that the fans who love a perpetual rebuild (We were a rebuilding team. We had always been a rebuilding team) were in favor of this because any time a local team falls short of expectations, they call for the team to “blow it up and start over.”

These fans don’t measure players in terms of their value to the current team, but rather how much they could return in a trade. Nothing excites them more than the possibility of trading a player like Wheeler away for prospects who might one day be as good as Wheeler.

But Olney specifically mentions how freeing the Phillies from the burden of Wheeler’s salary would give the team “payroll flexibility” to improve in 2022. That is some galaxy brain thinking right there.

Since arriving with the Phillies, Zack Wheeler has been an excellent pitcher, and is the current leader in wins above replacement in the National League. A true ace is probably the hardest thing to acquire in baseball, and yet Olney suggests “payroll flexibility” would somehow be more useful to the team.

Wheeler is due to be paid $26 million in 2022. That is a lot of money. However, that is $8 million less than Trevor Bauer received this past offseason, so it is well within the market rate for top-of-the-rotation pitchers.

For that same amount of money, the Phillies could have signed a 37-year old Charlie Morton, and a Corey Kluber coming off two straight seasons lost to injury. Perhaps the Phillies would be better off with those two in the rotation this season instead of one Zack Wheeler, but even though both are having good seasons, their total wins above replacement don’t equal Wheeler’s.

And Morton and Kluber are best case scenarios for that sub-ace level of free agent pitcher. It’s just as likely that a free agent acquisition in that price range ends up like Drew Smyly ($11 million, 0.3 WAR), Garrett Richards ($8.5 million, 0.3 WAR), or Mike Minor ($7 million, 0.1 WAR).

Maybe the Phillies would be able to identify and sign the right guys, but have any of their mid-tier and below free agent signings of recent years given you any confidence they can do that? The Phillies’ bargain-hunting efforts to fill out their rotation in 2021 brought in such luminaries as Matt Moore and Chase Anderson. There are no such things as sure things in baseball, but I’ll take my chances on Wheeler being worth the money over any of the potential replacements they would find in free agency.

Perhaps most importantly, the Phillies DO NOT NEED TO SUBTRACT WHEELER’S SALARY. Not only do they have a decent amount of money coming off the books next season, it should not be forgotten that they have a massive cable deal, and stadiums are allowed to operate at full capacity. The luxury tax threshold is not a salary cap, and the only reason the Phillies have not exceeded it is because the owners have chosen not to.

To sum: The Phillies don’t need to trade Wheeler to gain that ever-desirable payroll flexibility. They already have it, and should use it to supplement a team with Wheeler at the top of the rotation.