Zack Wheeler looks like an excellent Phillies free-agent signing with the best yet to come

Jim Salisbury
·3 min read

This looks like an excellent Phillies free-agent signing with the best yet to come originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

As baseball's offseason takes shape, we will take a look at each player on the Phillies 2020 roster and where they fit in the future. We'll go through the roster by uniform number, lowest to highest for position players, highest to lowest for pitchers, and alternate daily.

Today: Starting pitcher Zack Wheeler

Career rundown

Wheeler was the No. 6 overall pick (by San Francisco) in the 2009 draft. He debuted in the majors with the New York Mets in 2013, battled through Tommy John surgery and periods of inconsistency and has now put together three straight strong seasons that suggest the best is yet to come.

How he became a Phillie

Wheeler, an Atlanta-area native, passed on a better offer from the Chicago White Sox and signed a five-year, $118-million contract with the Phillies last offseason because he wanted to stay on the East Coast and work with catcher J.T. Realmuto. It's unclear who Wheeler will pitch to for the remainder of his contract, but the Phillies are glad to have him.

2020 season

Wheeler was considered a second-tier starter on last winter's free-agent market behind Gerrit Cole, who got $324 million over nine years from the New York Yankees, and Stephen Strasburg, whose reworked deal with the Washington Nationals landed him $245 million over seven years. Strasburg missed most of 2020 with an injury and Wheeler measured up favorably to Cole in many areas, with the exception of strikeouts.

In fact, though Wheeler carried the fifth-highest average fastball velocity in the majors among starting pitchers who threw at least 500 of them in 2020, his strikeouts shrunk from 9.0 per nine innings in 2019 to a career-low 6.7. However, Wheeler's walk rate also shrunk while his ground ball percentage was a career-best 56 percent. In short, he did more "pitching" than ever before in his career, a result, possibly, of working with former pitching coach Bryan Price. Wheeler still showed the power to go upstairs for a strikeout but kept his pitch counts in check by getting ground balls early in counts with his hard sinker. He rolled 13 double plays, second-most in the majors, and gave up just 0.38 homers per nine innings, which was best in the NL.

For the season, Wheeler went 4-2 with a 2.92 ERA in 11 starts. He had seven quality starts and went 4-0 with a 2.38 ERA in seven starts at Citizens Bank Park. He is the only Phillies pitcher to ever hold the opposition to three or fewer runs in each of his first 10 starts with the club.

What lies ahead

Along with Aaron Nola, Wheeler is one half of the Phillies' biggest strength — a respected 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation.

Wheeler, who turns 31 in May, had surgery earlier this month to address a longstanding problem with the fingernail on his right hand. The issue forced him to miss a start late this season but should be behind him now.

The evolution that Wheeler showed as a pitcher in 2020 should serve him well over the life of his contract and he might be ready for a big, mid-career breakout. If he stays healthy, he's good enough to make multiple All-Star teams before his time in Philadelphia runs out.

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