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December 05, 2019

Kevin Cooney: Phillies taking a big gamble on Zack Wheeler — and they better hope it pays off

If Klentak really wanted to spend big money on a starting pitcher, why this guy? And why now?

It is the time of the year where rational thinking tends to disappear and organizational philosophies get thrown into the wind.

The Phillies, right now, are the biggest example of that.

The organization that balked at giving Dallas Keuchel a one-year contract last year and wouldn’t go the extra year for Patrick Corbin – watching both walk away to division rivals who ended up playing into October — decided this year to sign good-but-not-great starting pitcher Zack Wheeler to a multi-year contract on Wednesday.

This is paying on potential – the idea that a 95 to 96 mile per hour fastball and a decent off-speed repertoire will somehow click here to make a five year, $118 million contract seem like it wasn’t completely insane.

This is the Phillies paying for need, working from a position of weakness. There was a big market of teams chasing starting pitching, but none reeked more of desperation than Philadelphia’s three gaping holes, at minimum, in the rotation behind Aaron Nola. (It’s the holidays and we’re being kind to Zach Eflin.)

This is the ultimate boom or bust move for this organization. They are going to the second tier of the starting pitching market behind Gerrit Cole and still paying a premium price. If Wheeler pitches to his major league average over the life of his contract — a 12-10 record with a 3.77 ERA and a 1.294 WHIP — this deal will be viewed as a loser.

The biggest warning sign here is the fact that Wheeler is maddeningly inconsistent. Consider his stretches over the last two seasons:

From May 4 to July 9, 2018, Wheeler started 13 games. His numbers were pedestrian — 0-5, 4.52 ERA, 105 Ks in 77 1/3 innings pitches. To finish that season, Wheeler’s final 12 starts of 2018 saw him go 10-1 with a 1.96 ERA, holding hitters to a .188 batting average with 80 strikeouts and 17 walks.

Last year, it was the same deal: First 19 starts, Wheeler was 6-6 pitching to a 4.69 ERA. He did have a good strikeout/walk ratio of 130 Ks/34 walks, but the ERA certainly was pedestrian for a guy making over $20 million a year. The ending (July 26 to Sept. 26) saw Wheeler’s numbers improve to a 5-2 mark with a 2.83 ERA with a K/BB ratio of 65 strikeouts to 16 walks.

So this is what you have: a guy who is going to be awesome and awful within stretches of the same season. The key to the Wheeler signing is new Phillies pitching coach Bryan Price. While Price may have failed as a manager in Cincinnati, he is considered one of the best pitching minds in the game. He has to find that consistency in Wheeler or this contract is going to look awful.

All this highlights a simple point: spending enormous amounts of money on starting pitching is a  dangerous proposition. Andy MacPhail has preached that from the moment he walked into Citizens Bank Park. If you are going to do it, you better understand those risks.

For the Phillies — who have multiple holes to fill and a stated desire to stay under the luxury tax unless it meant a parade down Broad Street — the Wheeler signing by itself is not enough. And by giving that much money to a talented but inconsistent starter, Philadelphia may have already either eliminated the resources to fill another spot in the rotation or doomed itself to overpay for a bad deal.

Getting Cole — even with the fact that he is one of the best in the game — is going to be a potential nightmare when you get to Years 5, 6 and 7 of his eventual free agent contracts when he’s in his mid-30s. Pitchers age in dog years and the body breaks down quickly in this post PED era.

RELATED: Paul Hagen: The Phillies should STILL break the bank for Gerrit Cole, and here's why

Think of all the complaints that are connected with Madison Bumgarner that you heard — broken down, best days are behind him, blah blah blah — and understand that he’s just nine months older than Wheeler and without the checkered injury history.  Wheeler’s innings total is over 1,000 less than Bumgarner, a testament to MadBum’s sturdiness and Wheeler’s UCL strain that cost him two seasons in 2015 and 2016.

Giving Bumgarner the contract that Wheeler has just inked would have been viewed as general manager malpractice. And yet, if you were Bumgarner, why in the world would you take one cent less or one year fewer than Wheeler, given what the Phillies established the market at?

If that’s the case, the Phils are out of the market for a second starter in this market by free agency unless John Middleton wants to go crazy over the luxury tax. And in the end, they are banking on Jake Arrieta being a hell of a lot better than he’s ever shown in a Phillies uniform at an age when guys backslide. And then, some combination of Eflin, Vince Velasquez, Spencer Howard, Nick Pivetta and the baseball equivalent to loose change and pocket lint to piece together a rotation against the Braves and Nationals. This is beyond looking for infielders and a potential centerfielder down the road that are desperately needed.

They have already broken from an organizational philosophy to fill one starting rotation spot from the middle of the deck. But it is fair to wonder if all the cash for Zack Wheeler really makes them all that better. And if this is the way they were going, why didn’t they decide on this last winter when the options appeared a lot clearer.

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