John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
My first instinct was to wonder if Zack Wheeler's eighth-inning blow-up on Thursday night against the Marlins would give potential suitors on the free agent market some hesitation, reinforcing the perception that he'll never quite turn his periods of brilliance into sustained dominance.
On Friday, however, an executive from a team that could have interest in Wheeler was quick to chide me for what he called a "talk-radio" mentality.
"That's how fans think," he said. "They judge everything through a small sample-size prism, especially when failure is part of it. That's not the world baseball ops people live in. We evaluate objectively, the bigger sample size the better."
"In that evaluation, Wheeler's seven scoreless innings matter more than the two home runs he gave up in the eighth. He's consistently given them length all season."
In fact, Thursday's outing marked the 15th time this season that Wheeler has completed seven innings or more in a start, the most of any pitcher in the National League other than Jacob deGrom.
"Certainty is one of the things you pay for," a second exec said. "For a guy who had a long rehab from Tommy John, Wheeler has taken the ball the last two seasons and gone deep into games.
"You still recognize the flaws. He might always have command issues that will be a factor when you're trying to put a price on his talent, but he's a relatively young 29, if you look at his career innings, with a free-and-easy delivery that should age well."
So you're saying…
"I'm saying he's going to get paid more than you might guess if you're looking at his 4-ERA (actually 3.96 now) and his high hits-per-inning. The certainty is a baseline to project value, but there are also going to be teams that look at his stuff, the way the ball comes out of his hand, and think they can find ways, whether it's using analytics to tweak his pitch selection or giving him better guidance from the catcher, and smooth out the rough spots."
You hear all this and you wonder why the Mets weren't more proactive in trying to lock up Wheeler after his spectacular second half to last season.
Ok, if you want to say they were justified in waiting, based on his spotty first half of 2019, the bottom line is by having another strong second half this season -- pitching to a 2.83 ERA in the heat of a wild-card chase -- Wheeler has put himself in high demand.
So what kind of contract will he command?
Both execs I spoke to suggested a range of $16-19 million a year over four years -- five years if there are enough teams bidding for him. So four years in the $70 million range, or five years pushing $90 million.
Could there be enough demand to push the number to $100 million?
"It sounds high but it wouldn't shock me, either," one exec said. "I didn't think (Patrick) Corbin was going to get six years and $140 (million) last year. And I'm really curious to see how high the dollars go for (Gerrit) Cole."
Too much for Wheeler? You can make that argument, considering he hasn't proven he can put a full season of dominance together.
But here's the issue for the Mets: if they don't want to pay Noah Syndergaard as he gets closer to free agency in two years, and would prefer to trade him -- which seems very possible -- how can they let Wheeler walk when they're all-in on trying to win in 2020?
There's no immediate help on the way, in terms of the farm system. So beyond deGrom, Steven Matz, and Marcus Stroman, the Mets are going to have to either trade for pitching or pay for it on the free-agent market.
Maybe they're thinking they could turn Seth Lugo into a starter again, but considering he saved their season by rescuing the bullpen from complete disaster, that would only increase the need to find answers for the late innings in 2020.
On the other hand, if the Mets did find a way to re-sign Wheeler, that would open the door for them to get creative in other ways. Specifically it would allow them to trade Syndergaard to fill multiple needs -- perhaps a young starting pitcher, a reliever, and a depth-type position player.
As such, Wheeler should be the first big decision for the Mets going into the offseason. At the very least they should make him a qualifying offer, which will likely go up slightly from the current $17.8 million one-year salary, because if he declines it, he'd have a draft pick attached to him.
Beyond that it's a matter of coming to a decision about value, and while Brodie Van Wagenen is relying more on analytics than the Mets have in the past, Wheeler's case may require a certain amount of faith. Because while his extraordinary second half of 2018 didn't springboard him to greatness this season, he did put up another strong second half, this time in meaningful games, which again could offer reason to believe the best is still ahead of him.
Or you could come away from his final start of this season bemoaning those two eighth-inning home runs as evidence Wheeler's potential will always be diminished to some extent by costly hiccups, thus creating a wariness about signing him long-term.
At some point, however, the Mets' current need for pitching simply can't be ignored. Retaining Wheeler would give them flexibility that seems vital, especially in regard to Syndergaard, which is why they should take the leap of faith, even if the price winds up producing some level of sticker shock.