Zack Wheeler was a hot topic during the 2019 Trade Deadline. He had become one of the more reliable arms in a very talented Mets rotation. After the Mets decided to hang onto him, they now have to decide whether or not to re-sign Wheeler as he enters free agency.
The sixth overall pick in 2009 draft, Wheeler has developed into a very solid major league pitcher. For his career, he had a 44-38 record with a 3.77 ERA/3.71 FIP, 1.29 WHIP, and 8.7 K/9. 2018 was Wheeler’s best season, when he had a 12-7 record, 3.31 ERA/3.25 FIP, 1.12 WHIP, and 179 strikeouts in 182.1 innings pitched. During that season, Wheeler had a dominant 9-1 record and 1.68 ERA in the second half. He followed up that season by pitching a career-high 195.1 innings in 2019. His numbers were overall solid this season, with a 3.96 ERA/3.48 FIP and 195 strikeouts.
Wheeler had some command issues early in his career, but he has brought his walk rate down over the past two seasons. In 2018, his walk rate was down to 7.4%, and in 2019 that number fell to a career-low 6.0%. His velocity increased on all of his pitches to career-highs this year. Additionally, Wheeler’s spin-rate increased on all of his pitches. These improvements make him a more attractive free-agent target and show that there’s still room to grow for him
Wheeler has had some trouble staying healthy over the course of his career. In the spring of 2015, Wheeler underwent Tommy John surgery to repair a torn UCL and missed the entirety of the 2015 and 2016 seasons. When he returned, Wheeler struggled mightily. In 2017, he only made 17 starts and had an ugly 5.21 ERA (79 ERA+), 1.59 WHIP and 15 homers allowed in just 86.1 innings pitched (1.6 HR/9).
Wheeler’s consistency has also been of big concern. Even though he’s had some strong second-half numbers over the years, he’s had some really bad months as well. In 2018, Wheeler only had a 3-6 record and 4.44 ERA – mostly due in part to a horrific 6.43 ERA in May. While Wheeler was one of the best pitchers in baseball in the second half in 2018, some wondered if he would stick in the rotation after that month.
Wheeler struggled again in the first half of 2019. He entered the All-Star Break with a 6-6 record and 4.69 ERA. In both April and July, his ERA was over 5.00. Wheeler also had 10 starts during the year where he allowed four or more runs. Though Wheeler has a ton of potential, he has yet to maintain success over the course of an entire season.
Wheeler’s performance has made him an intriguing target for many teams. He will also be helped out by his age, since he doesn’t turn 30 until May of 2020. The Angels are definitely a team that will consider looking at Wheeler, as their 5.64 rotation ERA was second-worst in the Majors. The Red Sox were reportedly interested in Wheeler at the 2019 Trade Deadline and will probably look at him again to help their 4.95 rotation ERA. Other playoff-hopefuls such as the Cubs, Twins, Brewers, Phillies, and Braves all had rotation ERAs over 4, so they should also look at Wheeler as a target.
Wheeler isn’t an ace, but he is still valuable as a mid-rotation workhorse. Another workhorse in Jeff Samardzija received a $90 million contract coming off a much worse season (and was a year older). Should he receive a qualifying offer from the Mets (one year, $17.8-million) he should accept it. If not, expect Wheeler to receive anywhere between three years and $45 million, and five years and $90 million.
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