Wheeler's megadeal shows Phillies unfazed by 2019's costly failure
Mitchell Leff / MLB / Getty Images

It would've been so easy for the Philadelphia Phillies to stay quiet this winter, to invoke their failed 2019 campaign - and the spree that preceded it - as a cautionary tale and simply let the chips fall as they may next summer.

After all, the acquisitions of Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura, and David Robertson - at considerable expense, in terms of both dollars and prospect capital - amounted to just one more win than the still-rebuilding Phillies managed the season prior. Despite a year-over-year payroll increase of $45 million, the Phillies failed for an eighth straight season to win more times than they lost and ultimately finished in fourth place in the National League East, at 81-81, eight games back of a wild-card berth. In doing so, they provided themselves - and, for the matter, every other team in an already dangerously austere landscape - a pretext for financial restraint, having too perfectly illustrated the perils of spending "stupid money," which Phillies owner John Middleton suggested he would last November.

In fact, the Phillies could've justified with minimal effort a lackluster winter while also promising better things in 2020. It stands to reason, for one, that Harper - who put up great-but-not-quite-superb numbers in his first season with the club - will be more comfortable in his new environs and less encumbered by the pressure of delivering on his $330-million contract. Meanwhile, McCutchen, who had been enjoying a fine campaign when he tore his ACL in June, couldn't possibly suffer another freak injury. As for the Phillies' cadre of disappointing holdovers, it's unlikely that Jake Arrieta, Aaron Nola, and Rhys Hoskins could all continue to flounder. Perhaps Joe Girardi - tabbed as Gabe Kapler's replacement back in October - could help get them back on track. In any event, even in an increasingly competitive division, the Phillies had enough talent to market themselves as a contender moving forward, their 2019 performance notwithstanding. As such, they were uniquely positioned to play it safe without necessarily provoking the ire of their fan base.

But they didn't.

Instead, the Phillies decided to go big once again this winter, reportedly handing out the offseason's biggest contract to date on Wednesday by signing right-hander Zack Wheeler to a five-year deal worth $118 million. Additionally, because Wheeler received a qualifying offer from the New York Mets, the Phillies will also forfeit their second pick in the 2020 amateur draft. To be sure, that's a steep price to pay for a pitcher as risky as Wheeler, who has an extensive injury history and whose stuff often elicits more praise than his results, but the Phillies are clearly committed to winning a World Series sooner rather than later, and they seem to recognize they're on the clock.

Despite the evidence to the contrary, after all, the Phillies are currently in the chewy center of their competitive window, and the pressure to win a title in the next few seasons is substantial. Realmuto, who led the club with 5.7 WAR in 2019, will be a free agent next winter. So will Arrieta. Robertson, who barely pitched this year due to injury, will be gone after 2021 at the latest. McCutchen, meanwhile, only has two guaranteed years left on his contract, and he'll be 35 when the Phillies decide whether to exercise his $15-million option for 2022. And while Harper will be around forever to give the Phillies a middle-of-the-order bat to build around, it's hard to imagine the club having a better supporting cast around him than they do now, especially with their farm system sorely lacking impact talent in the wake of recent graduations and trades made to boost the big-league club. Still, to get over the hump and dethrone the dynastic-looking Atlanta Braves - or at least earn a wild-card spot - in 2020, they needed help in their rotation. (Reminder: the reigning World Series champions play in their division, as well.)

Amid injuries and widespread underperformance, the Phillies' rotation accrued less WAR than all but seven other teams this year, finishing fifth-last in the National League in ERA (4.64) and second-last in fielding independent pitching (4.91). Frankly, it was unclear at season's end who would follow Nola and Arrieta in the rotation in 2020 given how unimpressive the club's back-end starters were: none of Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez, Zach Eflin, or Jerad Eickhoff posted a FIP below 4.89. At least one of those spots is now spoken for. And if Wheeler can replicate the success that he enjoyed over the past two seasons, the Phillies might actually have one of the better rotations in the NL next year with some positive regression from Nola, who finished third in Cy Young voting in 2018.

Wheeler, who turns 30 in May, has quietly been one of the game's most dominant starters for the last two years, putting up elite fielding-independent numbers that were obscured by his relatively pedestrian ERAs. In fact, since the start of 2018 - his first full season back from Tommy John surgery - Wheeler has amassed more WAR (8.9) than every pitcher except Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, Patrick Corbin, Chris Sale, Lance Lynn, Trevor Bauer, and Charlie Morton. That's some pretty elite company.

SP WAR leaders, 2018-2019

Jacob deGrom 16 2.05 2.32 2.85 0.94
Max Scherzer 14 2.70 2.56 2.98 0.96
Gerrit Cole 13.4 2.68 2.67 2.75 0.96
Justin Verlander 13 2.55 3.03 3.11 0.85
Patrick Corbin 10.6 3.20 2.98 3.1 1.12
Chris Sale 9.8 3.210 2.66 2.61 0.97
Lance Lynn 9.5 4.14 3.43 3.91 1.35
Trevor Bauer 9.1 3.45 3.48 3.79 1.18
Charlie Morton 9 3.09 3.17 3.35 1.12
Zack Wheeler 8.9 3.65 3.37 3.94 1.19

In 2019, Wheeler set a new career high in innings pitched (195 1/3) over 31 starts with the Mets, authoring a 3.96 ERA with a 3.48 WHIP while enjoying a slight uptick in velocity, according to Brooks Baseball. (His fastball, which had averaged 96.56 miles per hour in 2018, sat at 97.01 mph this year.) His underlying stats were no less encouraging, as Wheeler's expected weighted on-base average - culled from his average exit velocities and launch angles - of .297 outshined those of Shane Bieber, Corbin, and Mike Soroka. In short, Wheeler was arguably the best pitcher available this winter not named Cole or Strasburg, the supposed red flags on his resume notwithstanding (i.e. past elbow problems and a career ERA+ of 100). The Phillies' investment in him reflects that.

With their financial commitments now at $173 million for 2020, the Phillies are currently rocking the second-largest payroll in franchise history. Another meaningful addition - and, it should be noted, uncertainty remains at least one infield position following the decisions to non-tender third baseman Maikel Franco and second baseman Cesar Hernandez - would likely push them past their record of $177 million, set in 2014. Whether they're prepared to do that remains to be seen, but the Phillies are already in a much better position to contend for a division title now than they were Tuesday.

And don't be surprised if another significant move follows, either. Over the last two offseasons, the Phillies have distinguished themselves in the current landscape through their willingness to spend money (or give up prospects) to compete even without the safety net of ongoing success. Zack Wheeler is evidence of that.

Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.

Wheeler's megadeal shows Phillies unfazed by 2019's costly failure
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