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December 05, 2019

What they're saying: After Wheeler signing, Phillies still need more help if they hope to contend

And that likely means Philly will have to pay the luxury tax, whether they like it or not

Unlike last winter, when the Phillies failed to add any starting pitching help via free agency — and paid the price for it during the season — Matt Klentak and Co. wasted no time this year adding a legitimate free agent starter. They did so before the Winter Meetings even kicked off, landing Zack Wheeler on a five-year deal on Wednesday.

However, by all accounts, the Phillies are far from done retooling their roster. They still have a little bit of money to spend before hitting the luxury tax threshold, but if they really hope to contend this season, a year after one of the richest off-seasons in MLB history, the Phillies are likely going to have to pay a little extra to do so, thanks to the $118 million they spent for the next five years of Wheeler's services. 

On Wednesday, just after the deal was made, Paul Hagen wrote that the Phillies should still go after Gerrit Cole, the top free agent pitcher on the market. And on Thursday, Kevin Cooney wrote that Wheeler alone isn't enough to get the Phillies over the hump in 2020, and by signing him, the Phillies "may have already either eliminated the resources to fill another spot in the rotation or doomed itself to overpay for a bad deal."

But still, the addition of Wheeler undoubtedly makes the Phillies rotation better than it was a season ago. Whether or not that will be enough remains to be seen. 

Let's take a look at what some local and national writers think about Wheeler, his deal with the Phillies, and what it means moving forward, both for Philly and his former team, the Mets, in a fresh edition of What They're Saying...

Why Wheeler and not Cole or Strasburg?

Michael Baumann | The Ringer

Over at The Ringer, Michael Baumann had an interesting take on why the Phillies went after a guy like Wheeler instead of trying to land Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg, considering the latter two options wouldn't have cost that much more and would've been much more reliable options. 

There's no question that Matt Klentak is on the hot seat after last season's debacle. And perhaps Wheeler, while not the best option for his team, is the better option when it comes to his own job security. If so, that would not be a great look.

Even the most optimistic projection of the Phillies’ starting rotation, which includes Wheeler, leaves them at least one starting pitcher short. And while the 2019 Phillies’ pitching staff as a whole was dogshit, the bullpen specifically was Beyond Dogshit. Injuries played a factor there, but Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter are out of the organization, setup man David Robertson will be out for the season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, and Seranthony Domínguez’s elbow ligaments probably look like the innards of a spaghetti squash right about now.

In short, the Phillies have so many holes they ought to change their name to the Philadelphia Stanley Yelnatses, and rather than using their offseason budget to fill those gaps, they’ve blown about a third of it on one average player. And yet, if they’d been willing to increase their offer to $30 million a year, they could have walked away with Cole or Strasburg, both of whom have higher upside than Wheeler with almost none of the question marks. Maybe some of the same holes would remain, but the Phillies’ rotation would be substantially stronger.

It’s a puzzling choice, one perhaps best explained by the perverse hedge fund-inspired incentive structure in baseball today: GMs who sign risky players and watch them improve tend to be hailed as geniuses. GMs who sign risky players and watch them fail get fired. But GMs (or in the case of Dave Dombrowski and the Red Sox, presidents of baseball operations) who sign established stars to big contracts and win the World Series also get fired. The upside of pursuing Cole or Strasburg instead of Wheeler is obvious for the Phillies’ competitive potential, but perhaps not for GM Matt Klentak.  []

Odds are, the actual answer is that Wheeler was ready to sign now, while Strasburg and Cole are still being courted by other teams, meaning the Phillies could've passed on Wheeler and then been left out in the cold if the other two signed elsewhere. And you all know the old expression: a free agent starter in hand is worth two in the bush. 

What Wheeler brings to Philly

Paul Boye | The Good Phight

So what will the Phillies getting when Wheeler finally takes the mound? Well, for one thing, they'll be getting a guy who throws harder than any starter they have on their staff — he threw the second-most 95+ MPH pitches in all of baseball last year — and maybe harder than any they've had in quite some time.

But he brings more than just that. Here's a breakdown of his stuff, from Paul Boye of The Good Phight:

For starters (get it?), Wheeler throws hard. Like, harder than basically everyone else on the Phils’ staff not named Seranthony.

In an era where high velocity is more prevalent than ever, Phillies starting pitchers have lagged. Now, in Wheeler, they have a legitimate fireballer. Better yet, Wheeler has been getting stronger, elevating his FB average from 94.8 MPH in 2017 to 95.8 MPH in ‘18 to 96.8 in ‘19, which put him in the 94th percentile of pitchers in the league. He’s also gone from 5.1 IP per start in 2017 to 6.3 in both 2018 and ‘19, while his pitches per start (from 92 to 99 to 102) have also risen alongside; so, not only is he throwing harder, he’s able to sustain it deeper into games.

But no pitcher survives on fastball alone anymore, and Wheeler brings three reliable secondary pitches to the table in a slider, changeup, and curveball.

The slider is hard, averaging 91.2 MPH. and is a favored weapon against right-handed batters. Last year, righties posted just a .273 wOBA against Wheeler’s slider, with a 26.6 percent whiff rate (57 misses in 214 swings).

The changeup, a newly-utilized weapon for Wheeler in 2019, was most often used against lefties but occasionally flashed to righties, too. It doesn’t break as much — its 24.1 inches of vertical drop and 12.4 inches of horizontal wiggle are both 12 to 13 percent less movement than league average, per Statcast — but its late break, when tunneled right, leaves hitters starting their swing before they realize the bottom is about to drop out.  []

One more rotation spot to fill

Bob Brookover |

As we mentioned in the intro, the Phillies will likely still need to add at least one more starter, and the good news is that because they signed Wheeler early, there are still plenty of options out there for them. It just depends on how much they're willing to spend.

According to Bob Brookover or The Philadelphia Inquirer, they're likely going to stick to second-tier starters to fill out their rotation. 

If the Phillies cannot get Cole or Strasburg, there are other quality arms worth pursuing in this market. The very respectable second tier includes three lefties – Madison Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Dallas Keuchel -- and it’s no secret that the Phillies have needed a left-hander in the rotation since Cole Hamels’ departure at the 2015 trade deadline.

Hamels, of course, could have filled that void, but he decided Wednesday to accept a one-year deal worth $18 million from the Atlanta Braves. Hamels’ return to Philadelphia would have made for a great story, but the truth is the three lefties still on the market are better fits for the Phillies.

One baseball source indicated that the Phillies are more likely to go after one of the second-tier lefties rather than pursue Cole or Strasburg.

If that’s the case, Bumgarner should be the primary target, although at this point the Phillies have not been tied to the four-time All-Star and former World Series MVP. Bumgarner’s price would likely be the highest among the second-tier pitchers still on the market, but at 30 he’s younger than Ryu (33 in March) and Keuchel (32 on Jan. 1) and he’s the most decorated and the fiercest competitor of the bunch.  []

Time to pay the tax man

Matt Breen |

With owner John Middleton getting hungrier and hungrier to win (and win now), the Phillies might finally wind up paying some luxury tax this season. Here's a breakdown of their current payroll situation following the Wheeler signing, courtesy of The Inquirer's Matt Breen, and what it might look like if they do indeed cross that tax threshold.

But filling all of those holes will come at a cost. And the Phillies — despite having a billionaire owner who wants to win — might be nearing their limits. The Phillies have never paid baseball’s competitive-balance tax, but they might [not] be unable to avoid it this offseason if they want to field a postseason contender.

The team’s payroll, according to FanGraphs, is estimated to be $192 million, after the signing of Wheeler, when calculated for luxury-tax purposes. That leaves the Phillies with roughly $16 million to spend this offseason before reaching the competitive-balance tax threshold. It’s hard to imagine $16 million solving all of the team’s problems. So it could be tax season in South Philly.

If the Phillies’ payroll exceeds $208 million, they would be charged a 20% tax on all overages. If they exceed the threshold by $10 million, they would be charged an extra $2 million.

A season later, the penalty would increase to 30% if the Phillies are unable to keep their payroll to less than $210 million. But it would be possible for the Phillies to fall under the tax in 2021 because they’ll shed $36.5 million in salary by the departures of Jake Arrieta and David Robertson. The Phillies could pay the tax for just one season.  []

LOL Mets

Tim Britton | The Athletic

Perhaps the best thing to come out of the Wheeler signing is that it makes the Mets look really bad.

When Zack Wheeler agreed to a deal with the Phillies, a talented pitcher who had expressed a desire to stay with the team instead left for a division rival, because the Mets did not want to spend the money to bring him back.

“If he goes to Philly, that’s a little problematic,” J.D. Davis said Wednesday, just before the news broke.

There’s really no way to spin anything about this positively for the Mets — outside of pointing to Wednesday’s bigger news involving the team and the possibility that these types of things will stop happening sometime in the organization’s future.

In the moment, there’s no other consolation. The end result of Wheeler taking his talents down the Jersey Turnpike is difficult for the fan base to swallow. There are various scenarios in which Wheeler wasn’t a Met in 2020 that would have made sense for New York. What’s more disconcerting, right now, is the muddled process the Mets exercised with Wheeler over the last year-plus, crystallizing many of the issues that have plagued the team’s recent roster construction.  []

That's the good stuff right there.

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