When the Philadelphia Phillies inked Zack Wheeler to a five-year $118 million contract in December 2019, they likely didn't expect to get the return on investment that the right-hander has delivered. He has surpassed his contract expectations and then some. The 2009 first-round pick has not only become the best pitcher on the Phillies, but one of the best starters in baseball.
Prior to signing with the Phillies before the start of the abbreviated 2020 campaign, Wheeler had shown flashes of potential, but injuries had limited what he had been able to accomplish with the New York Mets. Through parts of five seasons with the division rival, Wheeler posted a 3.77 ERA and a strikeout rate of 8.72 K/9. Over the course of those years, the Mets' right-hander accumulated a 12.5 fWAR.
Once Wheeler signed with the Phillies, his career undertook a much more consistent trajectory. From 2021 to 2023, Wheeler has the best fWAR (17.3) in the Major Leagues. His 3.08 ERA ranks twelfth in baseball over that span. Wheeler has also increased his strikeout rate to 10.03 K/9. The Phillies' ace has also remained healthy for the most part. During the same three-year span, Wheeler has pitched 558 1/3 innings, which is fifth most in baseball.
Since becoming a Phillies' starter, Wheeler has turned his career around. He has made his current contract look like a bargain. Now that he's in the final year of his deal, the Phillies have made it clear that they want their ace to be a part of the club for the foreseeable future. It may not be as easy as offering him a huge deal this winter, however. Wheeler has a chance to hit free agency at the pinnacle of his career and is in line for a massive payday.
Is there a chance that the Phillies lock him up before the end of the season to prevent their ace from becoming a free agent? Sure, but like Aaron Nola, Wheeler will likely want to test the waters, even if his desire is to remain in Philadelphia.
The starting pitcher market has changed since Wheeler's last contract
The market for starting pitching is an ever-evolving entity. Lack of quality starting pitching around baseball has made those who are top-tier starters even more valuable than they would have been just a few short years ago.
When the Phillies signed Wheeler in 2019, Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg were the top pitching targets of that free agent class. Cole signed a nine-year $324 million deal with the New York Yankees, and Strasburg stayed with the Washington Nationals on a seven-year $245 million deal — which ultimately didn't work out for the player or the club.
Cole has a Cy Young Award and has pitched well for the Yankees; however, Wheeler has been right on par with his American League counterpart. He has also come at a fraction of the price. Cole may have set the market for top-class starting pitching in 2019, but since then other top-of-the-line starters have signed big deals as well.
Last offseason, the biggest names were Justin Verlander, Jacob deGrom, and Max Scherzer. The Mets signed Verlander and Scherzer to short-term deals worth over $40 million per season. deGrom ended up with the Texas Rangers on a five-year $185 million contract. Both of the Mets' additions were older than Wheeler when they signed their respective contracts before being traded away last season. deGrom is two years older than Wheeler.
How much will it take for the Phillies to keep Zack Wheeler?
All of that is important information to factor into a potential deal to lock up Wheeler long-term. The Phillies' starter will turn 34 years old this May. It's doubtful he would get a seven-year contract like Nola received last month. However, he is likely seeking a deal that will keep him with one team for the rest of his career.
The Phillies have two options if they want to have a chance to keep Wheeler from becoming a free agent. They could try to entice him and offer a shorter deal, like Verlander and Scherzer, with a higher salary or they could try to entice him by giving him long-term security.
For a short-term deal, it would easily take north of $35 million per season to keep the ace in red pinstripes. Something in the range of three years and $115 million could be Wheeler's asking price. The club may avoid this route to stay below the higher thresholds of the luxury tax.
The team may choose to offer another five-year deal. If that is the case, deGrom's contract may be a comparable deal to examine. Five years for $175 million would average $35 million per season. That would be a reasonable area to begin negotiations between the club and Wheeler.
It will ultimately come down to Wheeler's decision to test the market. He would likely garner a huge contract via free agency. However, if he's like Nola and wants to remain in Philadelphia, the Phillies will have to be willing to dole out their first-ever contract worth more than $30 million per year just to enter talks with the soon-to-be-free agent.
Whichever route Wheeler chooses, he has earned the right to do so. He has been nothing but spectacular in a Phillies' uniform. If he does enter free agency, the Phillies will have to get into a bidding war to retain his services. How far they're willing to go will depend on other offers and their confidence in their in-house replacements.