Wheeler is a guy who can give the Phils 6-plus innings a night
The Phillies craved a starting pitcher like Zack Wheeler.
Wheeler should be the No. 2 starter behind ace Aaron Nola for a club that essentially had Nola and four No. 5s in their rotation last season.
Wheeler is a guy who can give the Phils 6-plus innings a night, which would take some of the weight off of the bullpen’s shoulders. He throws five pitches and averages a strikeout per inning.
“I think I still have a lot of room for improvement,” Wheeler said during Monday’s introductory press conference that also included shortstop Didi Gregorius at Citizens Bank Park. “I want to pitch in the top tier.”
The 29-year-old Wheeler, who signed a five-year, $118 million free-agent contract here, finished 11-8 with a 3.96 ERA last season as the Mets’ No. 3 man behind Jacon deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. Most impressive was his 4-2 record with a 2.66 ERA in his final 11 starts.
“We’ve very excited that Zack will pair will Aaron Nola and with Jake (Arrieta) and some of our younger starters to form what we believe will be a really good rotation this year,” said general manager Matt Klentak.
While Gregorius, who agreed to a one-year, $14 million deal, should solidify the infield — with Jean Segura apparently moving to second base and Scott Kingery headed to third — and provide a quality left-handed bat, Klentak should know better than to count on Arrieta, Zach Eflin, Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta again.
Those four and Jared Eickhoff were the arms the Phils hoped would complement Nola in 2018. Let’s just say it didn’t come close to working out that way.
Between injury and ineffectiveness, the Phils had to sign Rangers castoff Drew Smyly and acquired Mets journeyman Jose Vargas at the trade deadline for the stretch run. They won a combined four games in their 23 starts. Is that good? Velasquez and Pivetta were even worse for an 81-81 club. They spent time in the bullpen and Triple-A, but couldn’t get the job done in the majors.
Eflin was also somewhat inconsistent, but he performed much better after he ignored the advice of former pitching coach Chris Young. In his last 12 appearances, he was 3-2 with a 3.02 ERA.
The real unknown is Arrieta. After a disappointing first season in Philadelphia, Arrieta struggled in 2018, failing to go six innings in any of his final seven starts before shutting it down in mid-August due to a bone spur in his right (pitching) elbow.
Arrieta, who will be 34 in March, picked up his $20 million option for the upcoming season. The problem is he has steadily declined since his 2015 Cy Young Award campaign with the Cubs. Who knows what to expect from him? While Klentak claimed “I don’t know for certain that we won’t add another starter,” it doesn’t appear to be a priority. And the Phillies are close to reaching the luxury-tax threshold of $208 million, which would result having to pay a penalty to exceed that amount.
“When you add somebody to the front of your rotation (Wheeler) and have the three experienced guys, I think it takes a lot of pressure off the final two spots there,” Klentak said. “And we’ve got three guys competing for those two spots, which I think a little competition can never be a bad thing. We still believe in the stuff that these guys possess and the upside that they have and the ability to bounce back.”
It just seems like such an overly-glass-half-full approach, given the respective pitchers’ track records.
It’s no accident the Washington Nationals chose to re-sign stud right-hander Stephen Strasburg, who was the World Series MVP, to a seven-year, $245 million instead of star third baseman Anthony Rendon. Rendon, who earned the same deal from the Angels.
The Phils’ NL East rivals have Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin as their Nos. 1-3. Anibal Sanchez is a pretty solid No. 4. That group compares quite favorably to Nola, Wheeler, Arrieta and, say, Eflin.
Perhaps manager Joe Girardi’s new pitching coach, Brian Price, can make more of a difference with the staff than Young did.
Unless Klentak adds at least one more semi-reliable starter, Price becomes the Phillies’ best hope.
Tom Moore: firstname.lastname@example.org; @TomMoorePhilly