Yankees Free Agent Profile: Zack Wheeler

Former Met Zack Wheeler is one of the notable free-agent pitching options on the market this year. I know, I know. Nobody wants to hear about Zack Wheeler when Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, and even Hyun-Jin Ryu are out there on the market. We’ve covered each of these pitchers in depth already, though. Check those out if you missed them.

It’s time to look at Tier B for starters, though. This includes Wheeler and also Madison Bumgarner, who we’ll cover soon. We’ll start with Wheeler, who figures to be one of the first pitchers signed.

Background

Wheeler is a 29-year-old right-handed pitcher from Smyrna, Georgia. He was drafted with the 6th overall pick in the 2009 Amateur Draft by the San Francisco Giants and traded to the Mets at the 2011 Trade Deadline for Carlos Beltrán. He made his MLB debut two years later on June 18, 2013 at age 23 against the Atlanta Braves.

In 126 career games started and across 749 innings, he owns a 3.77 ERA (100 ERA-), all thrown in Queens in the other New York uniform. As we’ll see, the potential for excellence is always bubbling under the surface with Wheeler, but he has not yet put it all together.

Performance

Given Wheeler’s extensive injury history (more on that later), I think it makes sense to break down his career into three phases. First, from 2013-14, is pre-injury. The second being 2017, after his two years off. The final is the last two seasons, as he’s gotten further away from the Tommy John. Here is that breakdown:

IPERAERA-K%BB%HR/9
2013-14285.13.5010022.1%10.2%0.76
201786.15.2112821.0%10.4%1.56
2018-19377.23.659223.8%6.7%0.86

This paints a pretty interesting picture, in my opinion. Wheeler was a promising young pitcher before he got hurt, with his major limitation being walks. He was awful when he returned from those injuries, but that’s to be expected. He did miss two consecutive seasons, after all. It takes some time to get back up to speed.

Anyway, Wheeler has been a pretty productive pitcher in 2018 and 2019. His strikeout rates are up, his walk rate is way down, and he’s kept the ball in the ballpark. All told, he’s been about 8% better than league average. He’s not been a top-of-the-rotation type talent, obviously, but that’s a solid pitcher. It’s especially encouraging to see the walk rate decline. As far as Wheeler is concerned, he’s hitting free agency at exactly the right time.

Current Stuff

Wheeler is has a five-pitch arsenal, utilizing a four-seamer, sinker, slider, changeup, and curveball. He is primarily a fastball pitcher, using his FB/sinker combination about 60% of the time in 2019. Here is his pitch usage breakdown in 2019:

His stuff is really tantalizing, too. As expected, he throws extremely hard, sitting 96-97 with his hard stuff:

He’s a hard-thrower with a big arsenal. It’s not exactly difficult to see why Wheeler has always been a favorite among stat-loving scouts and analysts. Not to mention, the peripherals on some of his breaking stuff are really encouraging, too. Check out his whiffs-per-swing on his stuff:

  • Curveball: 28.35%
  • Slider: 26.32%
  • Splitter: 26.42%

That’s three different pitches with a whiff-per-swing rate over 25%, which will get the job done. His spin rates are above-average (about 71st percentile) and his other peripherals on his non-fastball pitches also tend to rate well (.275 wOBA on the slider, .245 on the curve). The stuff is there, and it’s reasonable to expect Wheeler to be a solid mid-rotation piece for the next several years, provided he’s healthy. It’s also not difficult to imagine a smart team helping him unlock this obvious talent and transforming him into a top-line starter, though that’s easier said than done.

Injury History

Unfortunately, Wheeler has quite a bit of injury history. He underwent Tommy John surgery in March 2015 to repair a torn UCL, which ended that season before it began. The rehabilitation from that surgery was particularly grueling, as he experienced several setbacks, which meant that the young righty missed all of 2015 and 2016 to injury.

After winning a spot in the 2017 Mets’ rotation, he continued to be plagued by injury that season, twice going on the then-DL before being shut down for the season after throwing just 86 innings.

Wheeler again hit the IL this year, as the Mets placed him on the 10-day IL this July right before the trade deadline. It was diagnosed as “shoulder fatigue” with no structural damage, for what it’s worth, and he did throw more innings in 2019 than any in his career. Still, he’s had a rough go of things injury-wise in his career.

What’s He Going to Cost?

Wheeler won’t carry the same hefty price tag as Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg, of course, but he isn’t going to come cheap, either. MLB Trade Rumors predicts a five-year, $100 million deal for the former Met. That’s more than they predict for Bumgarner, for what it’s worth. Jim Bowden at The Athletic is slightly more pessimistic (subs req’d) on Wheeler’s future bank account, predicting a four-year, $74 million deal.

The Mets extended the qualifying offer a few weeks ago, so the Yankees would surrender a compensatory draft pick if they signed him. That’s really pretty irrelevant, though. Anyway, Ken Rosenthal reported today at The Athletic (subs req’d) that Wheeler has already received a $100 million offer. Seems like a good bet that the Wheeler sweepstakes will wrap up shortly if that’s true.

Does He Make Sense for the Yankees?

It depends on what you expect. If the idea is to bring Wheeler on to solve the rotation’s woes and emerge as a frontline starter, then the answer is no. I think that should be obvious. Wheeler has obvious upside and that can’t be ignored–based on Rosenthal’s reporting, it’s not being ignored–but the results haven’t been there yet. He’s been good for ~400 innings but has serious injury concerns.

In other words, Wheeler makes perfect sense as a complementary piece to an already-great rotation or to a bigger fish, like Cole or Strasburg. As that piece, Wheeler is actually pretty exciting. But it likely will not be, anyway. Rosenthal didn’t list the Yankees as a suitor for Wheeler in his most recent reporting, which is fine by me. The Yankees already have plenty of good-to-great mid-rotation pieces. What they lack is a big fish, and it’s time for them to go deep sea fishing.

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1 Comment

  1. Wire Fan

    Very good write-up.

    I’m also in the ”pass” category. At 100+ Mil, it shouldn’t just be about potential, especially with his injury history.

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