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Photo Review: Cole Hamels Lost, Zack Wheeler Won

Cole Hamels returns to the NL East, but not to the Phillies. Zack Wheeler stays in the NL East, but not with the Mets, opting for red pinstripes instead.

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Photo Review: Cole Hamels Lost, Zack Wheeler Won


Estimated Reading Time: 5 Minutes

I am not going to spend much time on the Cole Hamels to the Braves deal, except to say that it has a lot to do with the emotional state in which I received the Wheeler news. For the first time in the fifteen-year career of Cole Hamels, I will have to root against him, since he is going to my least favorite team in the National League, whereas I was happy to enjoy him on the Rangers and Cubs. Hamels was a baseball boyfriend before I had the term “baseball boyfriend,” and it is a punch in the heart.

Reuven Guy, with whom I recently did the TGFBI podcast, asked me after the Hamels news but before the Wheeler reveal, whether Wheeler would make me happier. I replied that only Cole or Strasburg and a bottle of scotch would help. Wheeler, on the other hand, I classify as a $118 million mystery box. If somebody offers me a $118 million mystery box, I will always take it! Will it make me feel better?

Well …cue the “what’s in the box” gifs.

brad pitt what GIF
brad pitt GIF

Many may be mystified by Wheeler’s 5 year, $118 million contract. His frequent injuries (of the scary elbow and shoulder variety) mean that, at age 29, he has never pitched more than 200 innings in a single season. His career 3.77 ERA (more or less backed a 3.71 FIP) and, more pointedly, 1.29 WHIP, aren’t bad, but they’re not excellent, either. The same could be said for his pedestrian 22.8% strikeout rate (23% was average last year).

But Wheeler’s contract with the #Phillies represents the fact that teams in MLB are buying into to underlying metrics, rather than career wins, or even standard stats. On the Athletic, Eno Sarris notes that Wheeler has the fourth-highest average fastball velocity of qualified starters (after Syndergaard, Cole and deGrom, good company) with an excellent spin rate, and that his breaking balls–he has a slider, changeup, and curve, for five total pitches counting his sinker–are among the “hardest in the league.” Many teams were interested in Wheeler for his upside and his potential.

But: is it fair to bank on the potential of a 29-year old pitcher? On the one hand, injuries mean that Wheeler has 749 career innings on his arm– less than Aaron Nola has at 26 years old–and as a flamethrower, he’s already gotten his Tommy John surgery out of the way.

However, though the Phillies are my life partner, is this the organization that we can trust to make the most of a pitcher’s potential? Nick Pivetta has intriguing stuff and Vince “Vinny Velo” Velasquez can chuck it, to name some of the actually more successful Phillies pitching prospects of the last decade, and neither have been developed into something consistent, or someone who can go deep on a team with postseason aspirations.

Look, I like Wheeler.

In point of endorsement, I have had him on a fantasy team for the past two years. He absolutely shows flashes of brilliance. But “Flashes of Brilliance” could be the name for the documentary about recent Phillies pitching, and what the Phillies truly need is stability.

But it’s important to note, that we also have the mystery box of Bryan Price, the new pitching coach, to take into consideration. So we can be hopeful that we may see a change in the Phillies’ ability to develop pitchers. Maybe mystery box + mystery box will actually equal an iridescent dragon of pitch execution!

And counterpoint to the counterpoint: this is where the market was on Wheeler. And Wheeler has had two 4.0+ fWAR seasons, which is immensely valuable, regardless of the inconsistency that his good-not-great stats betray. The reports are that he had a better offer to go to the White Sox, but he took the Phillies’ deal instead, which I pray, for the sake of everyone involved, is not a decision he regrets.

But clearly, if the Phillies wanted to get him, this is what they had to offer.

Wheeler is arguably the best of the second tier of pitchers available in free agency this year, the top tier consisting of Cole and Strasburg, reigning supreme. I would naturally rather that Phillies sign one of those aces, but there’s a good chance that Strasburg will re-sign with the Nats, and Cole could go to the Angels or Yankees, and then the Phillies are stuck holding the, I don’t know, Wade Miley mystery box. (Which is not actually a mystery box, to me personally.) It’s still a miracle to me that Bryce Harper picked the Phillies and we got Joe Girardi but that doesn’t suddenly make the Phillies LIKELY get the most sought-after prize.

And even John Middleton, owner and supplier of the money of indeterminate intelligence to the Phillies, said that consistently getting the most elite, top-tier talent is not possible, or sustainable.

I’m on the record as saying that the Phillies really need two starting pitchers, and though I’d rather have one Gerritt Cole than anything else, grabbing Wheeler early in the offseason for a lower price than Cole and Strasburg will command could enable the Phillies to get someone else. Hyun-Jin Ryu is probably too much to dream of at this point, but maybe a Tanner Roark, Dallas Keuchel, Jordan Lyles or Brett Anderson?

And the Phillies do need another infielder.

After non-tendering Cesar Hernandez and Maikel Franco–I don’t have the time to fully opine on this, but I don’t regret the choice so much as that they were never able to trade them, though I do wish both players well–and their infield looks like a game of musical chairs with way too many chairs and not enough people to play the game. They look to be positioning themselves not to spend much on a reliever, but even if they don’t, there are a lot of needs, and actually not much space below the luxury tax to do it, especially if they can sign Just Terrific Realmuto to an extension.

To sum up: I am glad the Phillies got Wheeler. I’m glad they’re jumping on this offseason, and not letting the Braves and White Sox corner the market inefficiency of everyone waiting until St. Patrick’s Day to sign free agents. I am really glad Wheeler’s a Phillie, I’m dreaming on his skills, and I hope it’s a choice that does good things for Wheeler’s career as well as the Phillies’ chances. But I’m also hopeful that, now that the Phillies are out of the Cole/Stras sweepstakes, that it’s just laying the groundwork for more maneuvering to come.

Ellen Adair is an actor, probably best known as Janet Bayne in “Homeland,” Bess McTeer in “The Sinner,” and Bridget Saltire in “The Slap,” but has been in a lot of other TV shows, films, and theater that the truly curious can investigate at www.ellenadair.com. As a human being, she is best known for her unhealthy love of baseball. It says so on her business cards. She loves baseball in general, but the Phillies are her life partner. She is the author of "Curtain Speech," from Pen & Anvil Press, and is working on bringing to life a TV series about baseball writers. Connect with her on Twitter at @ellen_adair or Instagram at @ellenadairg.

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