2020 Free Agent Preview: Zack Wheeler

The offseason is underway and it is time to start looking at the potential free agents, first, we look at right-handed pitcher Zack Wheeler.

Despite a disappointing end to a memorable 2019 season for the Yankees, this year’s World Series certainly was a fitting end to a wild baseball season for fans worldwide. On Wednesday night, as Daniel Hudson’s 88 MPH slider darted through the air, missing the bat of Michael Brantley and planting itself in the glove of Yan Gomes behind the plate, the Nationals’ celebration on the field marked the end of the 2019 season and the beginning of every baseball fan’s most dreaded 5 month period: the offseason.

Among the Yankees‘ top goals this offseason will without a doubt be to upgrade their rotation which, although relatively effective in the 2019 playoffs, was very shaky at points throughout the season and could most definitely use an upgrade. While flashy names like Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg will be flaunted ad nauseum in free agency rumors, the team’s repeated instances of not wanting to shell out massive contracts to pitchers in offseasons past suggest that they may pass on Cole and Strasburg as well.

However, there are numerous other very effective starters on the market as well who wouldn’t break the bank nearly as much as Cole or Strasburg, both of whom could command AAV’s (average annual values) in the $30 million range. When it comes to “bang for your buck”, one pitcher amidst the crowd of cost-controlled available starters stands out: Mets right-hander Zack Wheeler.

Selected by the San Francisco Giants with the 6th overall pick of the 2009 MLB Draft, Wheeler lasted a mere two years in the Giants organization before he was dealt to the Mets for Carlos Beltran at the 2011 trade deadline. Already rising through the ranks as a top pitching prospect at the time of the trade, Wheeler continued his ascent to the major leagues with the Mets and debuted with the big league club on June 18, 2013. In 17 starts in his rookie season, he went 7-5 with a 3.42 ERA, the second best ERA on the team, trailing only rising star Matt Harvey (remember him?). As Wheeler’s Mets career progressed, he became more of a strikeout pitcher than he was in 2013, as his career 8.72 K/9 rate is more than a full strikeout higher than his 7.56 rate in his rookie season.

Wheeler’s go-to pitch is without question his fastball. Not afraid to go right after hitters, he went to his fastball a whopping 59.05% of the time in 2019. He also mixed in a slider 20% of the time, while using his curveball, changeup and splitter 10, 9 and 2% of the time, respectively (per Brooks Baseball). A pitcher who is willing to go to what he knows is his best pitch that often and doesn’t shy away from attacking hitters is something the Yankees’ starting rotation missed for much of this year with Luis Severino missing much of the season and James Paxton not truly finding his groove and determining his ideal pitch repertoire until his last dozen or so starts.

The exact opposite of a pitcher like Wheeler, Sonny Gray was brought in to shore up the team’s rotation at the 2017 trade deadline, only to shortly thereafter be essentially publicly excommunicated from the Bronx as his tendency to “nibble” and shy away from hitters irritated fans beyond belief. His monumentally disappointing 2018 season was poor enough to warrant his demotion to a bullpen role- quite a fall from grace after the Yankees surrendered three top prospects to the Oakland Athletics for him just one year prior.

Whenever notable players, especially starting pitchers, are acquired by the Yankees, one immediate concern many fans have is that of being unsure whether the player truly has what it takes to succeed in New York. Given that he has spent the entirety of his major league career playing right across town for the Mets, Wheeler is well accustomed to the pains of dealing with the pressure that comes with playing in New York, from the horde of media asking questions after each start to shortsighted fans’ seemingly endless calls for players’ trades or releases after one poor outing. To go back to the Gray example, there’s no question that Sonny had the talent to make it in New York, as evident by his success in Oakland before the trade and now in Cincinnati after the Yankees decided to move on from him last offseason. The issue was that he wasn’t built to succeed in the bright lights- his talent was able to come out much more in small markets. Wheeler already having six years of dealing with the pressure of playing in the Big Apple under his belt certainly suggests that fans shouldn’t be concerned about off the field issues and pressure affecting Wheeler’s performance on the diamond when he toes the rubber ever fifth day.

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In terms of the 29 year old Wheeler’s wants, he is still in the prime of his career and will want a multi-year deal from wherever he lands. While he won’t command the same hefty price tag that Cole and Strasburg will, he could still very well get somewhere in the $15 million/year range. A 4 year, $60-70 million contract could be a deal that would work for both Wheeler and for the Bombers. The Yankees would fill a spot in their rotation that currently only has three apparent “locks” for the 2019 season, in Luis Severino, James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka, while Wheeler would get security for four of the biggest seasons of his career and would get to stay in New York, where he has resided for the past eight years.

If the Yankees don’t open up the checkbook for a premier starter like Cole or Strasburg, or even if they do, Wheeler is certainly an intriguing option to deepen the team’s rotation as they prepare to finish the job they’ve come so close to achieving in recent years in finally bringing a World Series back to the Bronx.

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