Zack Wheeler and the Mets’ Qualifying Offer decision

Two of the top 10 pitchers over the past two seasons in fWAR are free agents this year. The main target will be Gerrit Cole, who ranks third in the majors with a 13.4 fWAR. Most people would guess Stephen Strasburg, who can opt out of his deal, as the other but they would be wrong. The second is Zack Wheeler, who has an 8.9 mark over the past two seasons, which ranks ninth, just ahead of Aaron Nola. Strasburg is 15th, with an 8.1 mark. He was better than Wheeler in 2019 but did not have nearly as strong of a season in 2018.

Of course, GMs are not going to value players simply by fWAR and hand out contracts accordingly. Instead, this is used to show that anyone who thinks Wheeler is going to be available cheap should probably re-think their position.

So, how much will Wheeler get in free agency? This isn’t so easy to answer. It’s always a supply and demand issue and there might be multiple pitchers available who would be appealing to a club with championship aspirations. In addition to those mentioned above, there’s Hyun-Jin Ryu, Jake Odorizzi, Jose Quintana and Madison Bumgarner. And check this mlb.com list for the others.

On top of that, there’s the issue of the Qualifying Offer. It’s a pretty good bet that the Mets will extend the QO to Wheeler, which might make clubs shy away from him. Just last year, it wasn’t until after the MLB Draft, when the QO was no longer in play, that former CY winner Dallas Keuchel was able to sign a deal. If you’re a club debating between Wheeler and Ryu – who’s not eligible to receive a QO since he signed the one the Dodgers extended last year – the absence of the QO could make the injury-prone Ryu the better option.

The QO is the average salary of the league’s 125 highest-paid players. Last year it was $17.9 million and it should be in that ballpark again. If the Mets extend the offer to Wheeler, they would receive a compensation pick in the 75-80 range. This is different from two years ago, when the compensation was a pick after the first round. There are exceptions to this new rule (if the team losing the free agent paid luxury tax or was a revenue sharing recipient) but neither apply to the Mets.

In the past, it was an almost automatic decision for clubs to offer their free agents the QO, as almost every player rejected it looking for a long-term deal. But in the past few years, more players have accepted it, fearing that they would, like Keuchel, be left holding the bag. The Mets have to decide if a pick around 80 is worth the risk that Wheeler accepts the QO and they have $18 or so million added to their already tight payroll. Wheeler has to decide if it’s worth the risk to turn down a guaranteed $18 million when he could be forced to sit out half the year and end up taking fewer dollars.

These are not equal risks.

FanGraphs shows Wheeler’s 2019 season being worth $37.6 million on the free agent market. Again, this is not a perfect or infallible number. But it’s a strong indication that if the Mets want to duplicate Wheeler’s production by picking up a free agent, it’s not like they can snap their fingers and come up with a guy for $18 million. Sure, maybe they can sign an older guy like Cole Hamels and he can defy Mother Nature and put up a similar type of year. But there’s no guarantee that the California native would consider signing with the Mets. And there’s always the risk that at age 36 he turns into a pumpkin. If you’re willing to spend $18 million, you might as well spend it on the 30 year old who’s already pitched successfully in New York.

When Keuchel turned down the QO last year, he cost himself $5 million dollars. And while he’ll enter free agency this year without any compensation pick attached, he’ll also be 32 and coming off a 0.8 fWAR season. Part of that is due to pitching fewer innings. But part of that is compiling a FIP over a run higher in 2019. Maybe he gets the long-term contract he was unable to land last year. But the average annual value of that long-term deal is unlikely to exceed the QO. If he had accepted the QO, pitched a full season and put up production like he did in 2018, he’d be in a much better position to land that type of lucrative long-term deal this time around.

Perhaps Wheeler will think of himself and his free agent chances as more akin to Patrick Corbin than to Keuchel. Like Wheeler, Corbin shook off some injury problems to put up back-to-back strong years, posting a 3.0 fWAR in 2017 and a 5.9 mark in 2018 before hitting free agency. Last offseason, Corbin landed a 6/$140 deal, despite having draft pick compensation. But there were two differences between Corbin then and Wheeler now. First, Corbin was considered the best pitcher available in free agency. Wheeler might be number two (or he might not) but the clear number one is Cole. And second is that Corbin is a lefty and high-end lefties will command a premium since there are fewer of them around.

Wheeler will have to decide if he can make more next year without the QO attached than he would this season. Let’s say that he rejects the QO and signs a 4/$75 deal, one that gives him both fewer years and considerably fewer average dollars than what Corbin got a season ago. Would he be better off taking $18 million this year and then signing a long-term deal the following season? Another year in the same ballpark as 2018-19 for Wheeler would seem to make it easier for him to land a 3/$60 or better deal as a free agent in the 2020-21 offseason.

But nothing is ever guaranteed for pitchers, who can get injured at any time. Wheeler could accept the QO and then get hurt and see his value drop through the floor. And you have to consider that because of his previous injury problems, Wheeler has not made the money that some other guys have made in their MLB career. According to Baseball-Reference, Corbin made over $30 million before becoming a free agent last year. Ryu made around $36 million when he accepted the QO last season. Wheeler has made just under $10.3 million. Maybe he made great investments and has lived a frugal lifestyle and it doesn’t matter. Or maybe he made too many vanity purchases and could really use cash right now.

My guess is that the most likely scenario is that the Mets offer the QO and Wheeler rejects it. But it’s not a certainty that the Mets will extend it. Perhaps the potential salary drain of $18 million isn’t worth a third-round pick from their point of view. And it’s not a given that Wheeler would reject the QO, either.

We’ll find out about both parties’ tolerance for risk in this decision. The Mets have to make their choice first, with the QO decision due five days after the end of the World Series. If the Mets do extend the offer, then Wheeler has 10 days to accept or decline it. One advantage that Wheeler has is that he can negotiate with other teams in this 10-day window. He’ll have the opportunity to see what the market looks like for his services. Of course, not all teams are going to give you their best offer in this time frame. And just because a team signals it would be willing to give a suitable long-term deal doesn’t mean that it actually will when push comes to shove.

20 comments for “Zack Wheeler and the Mets’ Qualifying Offer decision

  1. John Fox
    October 6, 2019 at 12:25 pm

    To Wheelers advantage is the fact that he finished so strong, his stats for the latter part of the season considerably better than his early season stats.

  2. Mike Koehler
    October 6, 2019 at 12:36 pm

    Maybe it entails ownership actually investing some of that insurance money into salaries or trading Thor for a king’s ransom, but the smart play here seems to be offering a reasonable multiyear deal in addition to the QO. Won’t accept $18 mil for a season, what about 3/$50?

    • October 6, 2019 at 12:56 pm

      Here’s a list of SP who rejected the QO and signed a multi-year deal:

      Patrick Corbin – 6/$140
      Jake Arrieta – 3/$75
      Alex Cobb – 4/$57
      Wei-Yin Chen – 5/$80
      Zack Greinke – 6/$206.5
      Yovani Gallardo – 3/$35
      Ian Kennedy – 5/$70
      John Lackey – 2/$32
      Jeff Smardzija – 5/$90
      Jordan Zimmermann – 5/$110
      Ervin Santana – 4/$55
      Max Scherzer – 7/$210
      James Shields – 4/$75
      Ubaldo Jimenez – 4/$50
      Kyle Lohse – 3/$33

  3. Mike W
    October 6, 2019 at 1:26 pm

    Somebody is going to make Wheeler a good offer. Dont be surprised to see the Yankees swoop in.

    Wheeler is a very attractive less expensive option compared to Cole.

  4. October 7, 2019 at 12:14 am

    If the Mets are able to free up space in their 2020 payroll, then I don’t see why they can’t make a serious offer to Wheeler ( 4 for 80-100?). Why go dumpster diving and waste all that time and money for a starter who may or may not succeed? The Mets have Diaz and Smith who can be packaged with Cespedes. It’s his walk year so I can imagine Cespedes playing with sprains and injuries to try and get one last payoff before retiring back to his ranch. The team has 9 Arb hearings with maybe 2 non-tendered. If Cano and Cespedes are back with the team in 2020 I don’t see where the Coupons come up with the money for Wheeler. Payroll will be close to 170 before you add Wheeler’s Q.O.

    • Chris F
      October 7, 2019 at 12:00 pm

      The Mets have Diaz and Smith who can be packaged with Cespedes.

      Ha! Cespedes is in witness protection. When was the last update anyone heard? We have no clue if he can even put a uniform on. He has zero trade value, and a no trade clause. Diaz has no trade value. And Smith, who has some trade value, is not even good enough to play every day on the Mets, so he’s a bench player. So your offer is a completely broken Cespedes, a terrible reliever, and a bench guy on the Mets side of a trade. Even if Ces waved the no-trade clause, Im cant believe what a team would give in return. Im not even sure a bucket of batting practice ball does it.

      Ces and Cano will both be Mets in 2020.

  5. NYM6986
    October 7, 2019 at 7:43 am

    Except for Sherzer, that list of long term deals is reasonable given the market place. Daniel Murphy opted out and got his 3 years and financial security but what about the ring? I see Wheeler going to a front line team to try and win it all. The Mets are not far off from being that team and with a better manager could have squeezed out 4 more wins to snag a wild card berth. With a better BP they might have challenged for the division. If he rejects the QO are the Mets precluded at any point from signing him as a free agent?

    • Chris F
      October 7, 2019 at 11:54 am

      If he rejects the QO are the Mets precluded at any point from signing him as a free agent?

      No.

      I think one would ask why place the QO and not just try to work out a deal, even a deal ahead of time. Its pretty clear there was little activity to avoid FA for Wheeler. I dont think he’s aiming for a home town discount from what Ive gleaned here and there. Not really expecting him as a Met in 2020. The one thing Ive wondered is whether he might take a severely backloaded deal earning very little this and next year, and piling on in Y3-4. Im not sure people really get how financially constrained the team appears based on historic payroll trends.

      • October 7, 2019 at 12:21 pm

        As someone who thinks extending Wheeler should have happened before extending deGrom, I like the creativity of doing what it takes to keep him on the Mets. Even if I’m not a fan of backloading contracts.

        Not that I expect it to happen…

  6. October 7, 2019 at 12:10 pm

    Just trying to clear payroll space. Diaz should be able to rebound (he’s only what 25?). If you don’t expect Wheeler pitching here in 2020 then I can’t see the Mets moving Thor.
    If you want to make a statement then sign Rendon with that money you’ve just saved.

    • Chris F
      October 7, 2019 at 12:41 pm

      What money? Rendon is a million times less likely to be a Met than Wheeler. There is no money savings from any expiring contract.

  7. David Groveman
    October 7, 2019 at 12:36 pm

    Even with the budget constraints, the Mets need to extend the offer. They don’t have a steady arm to slot into the vacated rotation spot for 2020 and there is nobody of Wheeler’s caliber that they’d be able to obtain for $18 Mil. The Mets only need to sign two players this off season as they’ll need a new backup center fielder to replace Lagares and another pitcher.

    While they’d like to spend less on pitching, it hardly seems like Wheeler accepting the offer would be a net negative.

  8. MattyMets
    October 7, 2019 at 12:50 pm

    Interesting take that considers the decision from both sides of the equation. If I’m in BVW’s shoes, I sit down with Wheeler’s agent now and see what it would take. Would be great to cross rotation (other than depth) off the off-season to do list so early and focus on manager and bullpen. If it’s not possible than QO is a no brainer for Mets. In addition to offering us compensation if we lose him, it immediately raises his price for other teams.

    For Wheeler, I think taking the QO under any circumstance would be a huge risk given his injury history. He has decide if he wants to be a Met or if he wants to take the biggest long-term deal he can get. Punting to next year would be his worst and riskiest option under any circumstance.

  9. October 8, 2019 at 12:02 am

    Chris in life you never know for sure. You’re probably 99% right but…As for clearing salary room on an expiring contract, I’m trying to sign a player that will replace Cespedes’ 29 million dollar salary on the 2020 payroll. I’m trying not to bump the payroll beyond 160.

    • October 8, 2019 at 8:32 am

      Conjuring up trades for Cespedes/Cano is like saying, “Let’s trade Tomas Nido for Ronald Acuna Jr.”

  10. Metsense
    October 8, 2019 at 9:32 am

    This was a comprehensive and good article presenting all perspectives on the Wheeler impending free agency.
    The Mets should we offer Wheeler a qualifying offer. Wheeler should not accept it because if he gets injured he would only make 29 million dollars in his career. Even if he signs 4/60 , he would be doubling his guaranteed career salary without any risk. Even though he has a draft pick attached, I think he will get more then a 4/60 contract based on research that you provided in the comments. He may have to wait until June to sign but he doesn’t risk getting injured either. His age at 30 will allow him to market himself for a multi-year contract even if he signs in June.
    This issue should have been raised last winter and now the Mets are painted in a corner. The Mets didn’t make the playoffs and not signing Wheeler would be a step in the wrong direction. The Mets don’t have a replacement in their farm system that will replace Wheeler. The Wheeler situation was poor planning by the front office. Somehow they have to Pony up the money.

  11. eric raffle
    October 11, 2019 at 7:30 am

    My opinion is that the Mets are in Ridiculously Great position for 2019…and it’s a much easier route to engage Wheeler at $20,000,00 or under on a 1 year deal/QO . I’d also be interested in re-upping Wheeler, if possible.

    That would leave the Mets with lot’s of Trade Capital (Yes–Including existing Arms)— How about Syndergaard for Betts??!!!

    Can a QO’d player be traded?

    • October 11, 2019 at 8:13 am

      Neil Walker accepted the QO from the Mets and was dealt.

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