The Mets decided to forgo a trade of impending free agent Zack Wheeler at this year’s deadline which raised the question of what his role is to the club moving forward. At this stage their options are likely limited to a qualifying offer (which would yield a conditional draft pick if another team signs Wheeler) or a longer-term deal that locks in the 29 year old right hander for a few more years. By looking at Wheeler’s previous seasons, his successes, and evaluating the current construction of the roster, one can make a strong argument for keeping the former sixth overall draft pick.
Over the last two years, in which Wheeler has played through the end of his initial service contract with the Mets, he has arguably been the club’s second best starting pitcher and has shown that he is capable of gutsy performances against playoff caliber teams. Most notably, he pitched to the tune of 1.68 ERA over a dominant second half last year and now in 2019 he owns a respectable 2.93 ERA in the second half.
Throughout his six year career with the Mets, Wheeler has ranked in the 22nd percentile among qualified major league starting pitchers in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) with a mark of 3.72. Or in other words, he has been one of the best of every five starters over this extended timeframe. A sample size of this margin with a pedigree such as that is nothing to glaze over when making a decision about said player’s future.
Interestingly enough, when looking at Wheelers rankings over this timeframe, he appears slightly ahead of an impressive Cole Hamels who’s data tracks through his age 30 to 35 year old seasons. Wheeler, who will be 30 years old at the start of the 2020 season, would do quite well for himself if he is able to emulate a career arc such as Hamels. Diving in a bit further, Hamels even makes for a formidable comp; his career FIP up to his age 30 season was 3.56. While this puts him more in the category of recent years’ Jon Lester and Dallas Keuchel, the fact that Hamels’ FIP is within .24 between his first eight seasons and his last six is impressive to say the least. So, for Wheeler, the consistency and longevity are the targets; a drop-off of the same magnitude would put him in the same vicinity as Jeff Samardzija and Felix Hernandez.
One could argue that Wheeler has the pitching infrastructure to be able to survive in the league for years to come. Not necessarily a strikeout pitcher by today’s standard, and with a pitch repertoire that keeps batters guessing, Wheeler is well positioned to be a balanced starter even as his velocity begins to drop. In an interview with Tim Britton of The Athletic during the offseason, Wheeler speaks directly to this “It comes with maturity in the game. It’s feeling the ball off your fingers. I felt like I knew where everything needed to be at a certain point. I could feel certain pressures on my finger, which I really couldn’t do before. I felt like I was turning into a pitcher rather than a thrower. When you can start feeling what you’re doing with a baseball, manipulating it, it makes it that much easier for you.”
Recently, Wheeler earned himself street cred with a dominant performance over the Dodgers on national television. With just a few more starts to go until the 2019 season comes to an end, the question of where Zack Wheeler will be pitching in 2020 should be front of mind. Met fans will argue that with a plethora of starting pitching already on the team, that the funds required to retain Wheeler would be best used elsewhere. However this writer believes that the club should take a cue from Blackjack and split the Aces and double down; sign Wheeler to four year contract to match the end date of Jacob deGrom. Pair the two aces together, optimizing their success, and continue to overpower the National League with starting pitching, bolstered by two more years of Noah Syndergaard’s big arm. The Mets would be fostering their own version of the Atlanta Braves trio of the 90’s.
Speaking of which, this is the type of move where ‘blocking’ another team is a calculated consideration (not when losing a five tool prospect is involved). While signing Wheeler only involves money – which is a sensitive topic among the Mets front office – it would crush the franchise if the ace signed with his hometown Braves and brought a pennant to them. Perhaps Wheeler would be willing to give the team that traded for him a discount, some will remember 2015 when he called up Sandy Alderson to express a desire to not be traded and remain with the team.
The focus around Wheeler should begin to shift over the next few months from ‘if’ to ‘how much?’ Perhaps the aforementioned Samardzija would be a good contract template to start – 4 years, $18m per year. With Todd Frazier and Juan Lagares off the books (and presumably a significant insurance savings on David Wright and Yoenis Cespedes), the Mets need to pony up and get a deal done for their ace in the hole.