7:33pm: The Mets also remain interested in exploring a multi-year arrangement with Wheeler, per Jon Heyman of MLB Network (via Twitter). It’s not evident how serious that possibility is — let alone whether there’s any potential for a pact to come together before Wheeler formally reaches the open market.
We’ve seen plenty of on-again/off-again chatter of a deal with Wheeler over recent months. When the Mets acquired Marcus Stroman, it was generally supposed that the club was going to move on from Wheeler, though the door stayed open when he wasn’t dealt over the summer. With obvious budgetary restrains and other needs, it still feels like a longshot.
Meanwhile, those prior trade talks also came up in reporting today. Andy Martino of SNY.tv tweets that the Mets spoke with teams right up until the deadline passed, with the Astros pushing hardest and the Yankees, Rays, and Athletics also involved.
That’s mostly of historical interest, though it could offer some clues for free agency. Indeed, the Houston organization is already engaged with Wheeler’s reps, per Heyman (via Twitter). The ’Stros talked shop with Jet Sports today. We can only presume that the outfit’s major free agent starter came up in conversation, among other things.
2:29pm: Zack Wheeler technically has another three days to accept or reject his $17.8MM qualifying offer from the Mets, but there’s never been a realistic scenario in which he takes the one-year deal. The right-hander is widely considered to be among the four best pitchers in free agency this winter — No. 3 behind Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, by many accounts — and should have little trouble cashing in on a lucrative multi-year pact. To that end, MLB.com’s Jon Morosi reports that the Angels, Padres and White Sox are among the teams that have shown early interest in Wheeler. Other clubs have surely checked in already and will continue to do so, of course.
Wheeler, 29, has come all the way back from a lengthy absence stemming from 2015 Tommy John surgery. He’s made 60 starts over the past two seasons and saw his fastball velocity tick up to a career-high 96.7 mph average in 2019 — the second-hardest mark of any free-agent starter on the market (behind Cole).
Wheeler had a rough handful of starts at the beginning of each of the past two seasons, but over his past 55 starts combined, he’s worked to a 3.47 ERA (3.27 FIP) with 9.0 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 0.82 HR/9 and a 43.1 percent ground-ball rate in 349 2/3 innings. Beyond the high-end velocity, Wheeler possesses above-average spin on his heater and curveball, and he’s excelled in terms of minimizing hard contact against him (90th percentile average exit-velocity among MLB starters, per Statcast).
Each of the three listed teams is a natural fit for Wheeler, though that’s true of the majority of rotation-hungry teams in the league. While the likes of Cole and Strasburg will be wholly ruled out by many clubs due to their expected $30MM+ annual salaries and over the next half decade-plus, Wheeler is quite likely someone most teams will view as affordable — even if he’s at the top end of their budget. The New York Post’s Joel Sherman quotes one team executive expressing a similar sentiment, calling Wheeler the best arm of the market’s second tier (beyond Cole and Strasburg) and adding “and everyone pretty much will believe they could afford him.”
Beyond the listed teams in Morosi’s report, it’d be a surprise if the Phillies, Twins, Braves, Yankees, Rangers, Nationals (if Strasburg departs), Dodgers, Blue Jays and others aren’t in play for the righty. Wheeler could draw the most widespread interest of any free agent on the market this winter and will probably be connected to a dozen or more additional teams between now and the time he finally puts pen to paper.