The Blue Jays are reportedly in the mix for free agent starting pitcher Zack Wheeler. That’s encouraging to hear, but is he the right big-money risk?
The theme of the off-season for the Blue Jays is the need for starting pitching, and that’s not going to change until they truly address the position. From the sound of things, they’re attempting to do just that by pursuing Zack Wheeler’s services on the free agent market.
If Wheeler were to land in Toronto he would instantly become the ace of the starting staff, easily surpassing the other rotation additions of Chase Anderson and Matt Shoemaker (who will return through arbitration), as well as the young group of incumbent starters. He would also easily become the highest paid player on a pretty cost effective roster as well, and that’s where things get a little complicated.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all advocating for the Blue Jays’ front office to exercise financial restraint, as they have no problem doing that without my encouragement. However, knowing the way the organization has operated over the last few decades, I can’t help but wonder if Wheeler is the right big-money investment for this team.
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I say that because I’m not 100% sure what the Blue Jays would be getting by signing the 29-year-old, as his resume really doesn’t pop off the page that much. That’s mostly due to some arm injuries from earlier in his career, and he’s certainly proven that he’s past those issues after his performance over the last two years. Last season he earned 4.1 bWAR while posting a 3.96 ERA and a 1.259 WHIP over 31 starts and 195.1 innings pitched, which followed a 3.9 bWAR season and a 3.31 ERA over 29 starts in 2017.
The recent track record is good, and certainly better than anyone currently in the Blue Jays roster. But is his current performance level worth a 5-year deal and 100 million dollars? Because that’s likely what it’s going to cost (at least) to get him to choose the Blue Jays as his next team.
If the Blue Jays were to front-load the contract, then it’s something I would be a lot more in favour of. According to spotrac.com, they have just over 54 million committed to their 40-man roster for 2020 before arbitration cases are settled, so there should be all kinds of room to play with. It sounds crazy, but I’d be more in favour of a 5-year, 100 million dollar offer if they were paying him 30-35 million per season in the first two seasons, with the remainder coming on the back half.
The reason for that is because the Blue Jays will be paying a lot more for the services of budding young stars like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Nate Pearson, and more by then, and the idea of forking out 20 million to a 34-year-old Wheeler might not be so easy to stomach at that point. It’s not the end of the world if he’s not quite living up to his contract at the end of it, as that’s often the case with free agent deals, but the timeline may not be ideal. With all of that in mind, front-loading the contract while there is all kinds of payroll flexibility could work.
However, what the Blue Jays really need is a second ace to put at the top of their rotation with Nate Pearson someday, assuming he turns into the stud that he projects to be. They have an underrated crop of young starters in the system right now, but this is a team on the verge being relevant in the playoff conversation in a season or two, so an established, top of the rotation starter is a huge priority, I know he might the best of what’s available (since the Jays aren’t going to make a serious bid on Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg), but is this the arm you want to invest in as that second ace?
For those of us that have been following the Blue Jays for many years, we know all too well that there is a limit to what ownership will spend, even in a huge market with seemingly unlimited resources. With that in mind, it makes me wonder if the front office will get to dip into the free agent pool for a “big-money” starter more than once over the next few years. Knowing that they’re eventually going to have to pay the kids to stick around, my guess is they may only get to do this once, at least near the top of the market. Again, I’m not saying that I think that’s the way the front office should run things, but they can only work within the parameters of what ownership approves, and we haven’t exactly witnessed any Steinbrenner-esque aggression in recent years.
My ultimate fear is that even with potential that seems like it hasn’t been reached yet, Wheeler has a career ERA of 3.77, and a WHIP of 1.294. Signing with the Blue Jays would move him into a hitter’s haven in the Rogers Centre, and ramp up the level of competition he’s facing on a nightly basis. The AL East isn’t quite the same juggernaut that it used to be compared to the rest of baseball, but Wheeler would still have to face a designated hitter with regularity, and he’d get several starts against the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays, which is no easy task.
Add it all up, and even though I’m hoping that the Blue Jays make a significant splash this off-season, I’m not 100% sold on the idea of that coming in the form of signing Wheeler. They would also have to give up a second-round draft pick in order to do it, and while that’s more important than ever in MLB front offices these days, I personally wouldn’t have a problem with the Blue Jays giving that up. That said, it’s still built into the acquisition cost, and is something to be considered.
With dwindling impact options on the free agent market, I’d rather see the Blue Jays sign Wheeler than come up empty-handed. However, with a few solid starters like Dallas Keuchel, and possibly others available on the trade market, I can’t help but wonder if Zack Wheeler is the right big-money investment for the Blue Jays. I guess time will tell, but signing Wheeler to the type of deal he’s expected to get feels like you’d have to pay for his potential more than what’s on his resume.