6:20 pm: Middleton rather firmly reiterated his unwillingness to trade Wheeler. “If they offered me Babe Ruth, I wouldn’t trade him,” the managing general partner told Olney. “I have authorized no one to have a conversation about trading him.”
12:57 pm: Both owner John Middleton and team president Andy MacPhail have denied Olney’s report, according to Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia, with Middleton saying “there’s zero truth to this.” MacPhail stated that Wheeler “is very much in our plans going forward,” and while “I’m not surprised that other clubs might inquire about him, [a trade is] not something on our radar.”
11:25 am: The Phillies have let other teams know that they are open to hearing trade offers for right-hander Zack Wheeler, ESPN.com’s Buster Olney reports. Wheeler signed a five-year, $119MM free agent deal with Philadelphia almost exactly one year ago, yet the Phils “have communicated…that they are facing a financial crunch,” Olney writes.
As always, teams are routinely “open to” receiving trade offers on just about any player as a matter of due diligence, just in case an unexpectedly great offer is floated. The Phils being willing to listen about Wheeler trades doesn’t necessarily mean that he is being openly shopped. This being said, there were already indications that the Phillies were looking to limit spending or even cut payroll in the wake of their revenue losses from the shortened 2020 season, and moving some or all of Wheeler’s remaining $96.5MM would certainly accomplish those rumored financial goals.
In the bigger picture, of course, trading Wheeler could also be a sign that a larger shakeup is coming in Philadelphia. Trading an established front-of-the-rotation arm isn’t the type of move made by a big-market team that is planning to contend, and if Wheeler is on the table in trade negotiations, it’s fair to assume the Phils are also willing to discuss anyone earning a big salary. Olney reports that “there is no indication” Bryce Harper is a trade candidate at this point. Harper has a full no-trade clause and is still owed $274MM over the next 11 seasons, so moving him might possibly be too complicated to manage.
Beyond Harper, however, Jean Segura (owed $30MM through 2022) has already been mentioned as a possible trade candidate, Andrew McCutchen is owed $20MM in salary for 2021 plus a $3MM buyout of a $15MM club option for 2022, and Aaron Nola is slated to earn $31MM through the 2022 season and is controllable through 2023 on a club option. Nola would certainly be the most attractive trade chip to rival teams, though one would think he would be pretty untouchable unless the Phillies were embarking on another complete team rebuild.
It also remains to be seen if the Phils would entirely abandon the idea of competing in 2021, or whether they would try the even more difficult strategy of trying to add pieces to contend even while in the midst of this “financial crunch.” Olney opines that it’s at least possible the Phillies would reallocate any money saved in a Wheeler trade towards trying to re-sign J.T. Realmuto, though it would seem likely that Realmuto would be wary about rejoining a team that just dealt another star free agent a year into a long-term contract. Plus, as Olney notes, “no matter what happens, there will be gaping holes in the roster,” since the Phillies already have needs in the bullpen and around the diamond, and trading Wheeler would create even greater need in the rotation.
Despite some fingernail issues that led to surgery in October, Wheeler posted some strong numbers in his first year in Philadelphia. The right-hander posted a 2.92 ERA, 6.7 K/9, 3.31 K/BB rate, and 55.9% groundball rate over 71 innings in 2020, reducing his strikeout rate at the benefit of generating more grounders and keeping the ball in the park. Among qualified pitchers, only Dallas Keuchel had a lower HR/9 than Wheeler’s NL-leading 0.38 figure.
Trevor Bauer is the only free agent pitcher projected to earn more than $96.5MM on the open market this offseason, and that assumes Bauer takes a longer-term deal rather than a shorter-term contract with a higher average annual value. With that in mind, Wheeler’s remaining contractual obligations will give some trade suitors pause, unless some other salary is moved back to Philadelphia in return. If the Phillies do have some level of desperation to cut payroll, however, a club willing to take Wheeler’s contract in full might only have to surrender a minimal amount of prospect return.