July 13: The Yankees’ interest in Wheeler, at this point, is considered to be “mild,” Kristie Ackert of the New York Daily News reports in a deeper look at the right-hander’s market. Scouts from at least eight teams watched Wheeler’s most recent start, and of that group, Ackert lists the Diamondbacks as a club that came away from the outing with interest in the righty. The Reds, despite their rebuilding status, are planning to watch him again this weekend.
The D-backs’ interest is easy to parse. Arizona has lost Taijuan Walker for the season and is now once again concerned over the right elbow of Shelby Miller, who only recently returned from Tommy John. The resurgent Clay Buchholz is currently on the disabled list as well. Beyond that, Arizona could lose Patrick Corbin to free agency this winter, and Miller’s future is currently anything but certain. Wheeler, controlled through 2019, would give them an affordable arm to add not just for this season but also next year.
As for the Reds, their inclusion is a bit more surprising. Cincinnati has played considerably better in recent months, but their rotation picture still looks to be largely a mess. President of baseball ops Dick Williams said recently, though, that the team plans to up its payroll in 2019. Adding Wheeler now could amount to doing a bit of their offseason shopping in advance, and his modest price tag would allow the team to pursue more costly rotation upgrades this winter, with the goal of pairing those arms with an increasingly encouraging core of position players.
July 12: Though Yankees fans might prefer a different target from the Mets’ rotation, the Bronx Bombers have “recently inquired” into the availability of right-hander Zack Wheeler, according to Marc Carig of The Athletic (via Twitter). While Carig cautions that the contact may mostly be a matter of conducting due diligence, it’s still a notable potential connection between these infrequent trade partners.
The thought long has been that the Yankees would pursue starters, but the level of quality they’ll ultimately end up achieving is still in doubt. Many would argue that the team needs to chase a top-end arm to pair with Luis Severino at the top of its staff in order to take down the rival Red Sox and make a lengthy postseason run.
With no rental arms available that meet that description — unless buyers are fully ready to believe in Nathan Eovaldi, at least — the attention has been on more controllable pitchers. That may suit the Yanks just fine, as they could well end up considering rotation upgrades at season’s end regardless.
That said, the asking prices for the very best assets figure to be astronomical. That’s no doubt the case for Wheeler’s teammate, Jacob deGrom, whose name has already made the rounds in the rumor mill as a crosstown trade candidate. His complete dominance — 1.68 ERA in 123 1/3 innings — and two remaining seasons of arbitration control make deGrom arguably the very top deadline pitching target in the game. Though indications are that the Mets will at least be open-minded, they’ll understandably be holding out for a truly compelling trade package.
Under the circumstances, it’s not surprising to learn that the Yankees are at least taking a closer look at Wheeler. True, Wheeler owns only a modest 4.42 ERA over his 99 2/3 innings on the year. But he’s carrying a solid 8.9 K/9 against 3.4 BB/9 and, more importantly, has shown some other interesting trends.
Wheeler is working at the top of his career velocity levels (96.2 mph average fastball), getting more swings and strikes (11.0%) than ever, and permitting an average exit velocity lower than all but seven other pitchers in baseball. And the results have improved quite a bit of late, coinciding with a rise in Wheeler’s velocity and a steady reduction of his fastball usage in favor of his slider.
The 28-year-old would not necessarily be an instant upgrade to the team’s anticipated playoff rotation, though perhaps there’d be some hope that he’d further establish himself down the stretch. Regardless, there would clearly be value in having him on hand to help a tough AL East battle. And even if he doesn’t currently project to be a postseason ace, Wheeler might be an interesting arm to deploy creatively — say, in a pairing with veteran lefty CC Sabathia, to offer one hypothetical possibility.
There’s added value in Wheeler’s contract rights, though that’s also countered by his spotty health history. He’s earning just $1.9MM this season before qualifying for arbitration a final time this coming offseason. The low cost may also be a factor as the Yankees contemplate other upgrades — including, perhaps, other hurlers — as it’d leave plenty of room left to work with under the luxury tax line.