When the Philadelphia Phillies on Wednesday agreed to terms with right-hander Zack Wheeler on a five-year contract worth a reported $118 million — a year to the day after the Washington Nationals signed lefty Patrick Corbin to a six-year, $140 million deal — it pushed an already robust Hot Stove League to a good, steady boil, just a few days before the industry congregates in San Diego for the annual winter meetings.
While the past two free agent markets were marked by stagnation and frustration — with the Corbin deal with Washington serving as an early-December aberration — this market, industry wide, already has zoomed past that of previous years at the same juncture.
The Wheeler deal, once it is official, will be the fourth for four years or longer signed this winter, joining catcher Yasmani Grandal (four years, $73 million from the Chicago White Sox), infielder Mike Moustakas (four years, $64 million from Cincinnati) and pitcher Drew Pomeranz (four years, $34 million from San Diego) — which is just two fewer than all of last winter, when marquee stars Manny Machado and Bryce Harper waited until late February to sign.
On the same day as the Wheeler deal with the Phillies, the Atlanta Braves signed veteran lefty Cole Hamels to a one-year, $18 million contract — already the seventh free agent signing for the Braves this winter (including bringing back their own players from 2019).
Clearly, both the Phillies, among the game’s biggest spenders the past few winters, and the two-time defending NL East champion Braves are serious about reloading and challenging the Nationals — who turned a wild-card entry this fall into a World Series title — for supremacy in one of the game’s most competitive divisions.
The Nationals, meanwhile, almost certainly have multiple major moves in their near future, whether it’s re-signing one or both of their own free agent stars, right-hander Stephen Strasburg and third baseman Anthony Rendon, or shifting into the markets for some of the additional top-tier free agents on the market, such as right-hander Gerrit Cole and/or third baseman Josh Donaldson.
On the surface, Wheeler, 29, was a strange candidate to strike it so rich in free agency, with a career adjusted ERA+ of 100, suggesting he had been exactly league-average across his five seasons with the New York Mets (plus two years, 2015 and 2016, lost to elbow surgery). The Mets made little effort to retain him, essentially acquiring his rotation replacement, Marcus Stroman, in a deadline trade in July with the Toronto Blue Jays.
But Wheeler’s relatively low mileage (only 749 ⅓ career innings), climbing velocity (97.0 mph in 2019, up from 95.4 in 2017) and elite spin rates made him a coveted free agent target for teams unprepared to enter the stratospheres of Cole and Strasburg, both of whom are looking for much bigger deals. Among the other teams known to have been in pursuit of Wheeler were the Cincinnati Reds, Chicago White Sox, Houston Astros, Minnesota Twins and Texas Rangers.
For the Phillies, and new manager Joe Girardi, Wheeler will occupy a prominent place in a rotation that is also expected to include Aaron Nola, Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin and perhaps Vince Velazquez — or yet another pitcher plucked from this free agent market.
There is still a long way to go, as measured both by the calendar and the superstar names still available, but at this early date, this market is already markedly different from that of a year ago.