Phillies fortify future with Zack Wheeler extension, but what about 2024?

Four years ago, Zack Wheeler departed from Queens with a chip on his shoulder.

After spending eight years in the Mets organization, Wheeler was unceremoniously discarded without so much as an offer from former team owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon. It’s not like the right-hander wasn’t highly pursued. At the time of his 2019 free agency, Wheeler was the next-best option after Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg. In the end, Wheeler wound up signing with the rival Phillies.

Former Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen even concocted a memorable jab at Wheeler on his way out.

“Our health and performance department, our coaches all contributed and helped him parlay two good half-seasons over the last five years into $118 million,” Van Wagenen said in February 2020.

Though it wasn’t how he thought his career in New York would end, Wheeler’s decision to pitch for Philly — and the feelings of revenge that bolstered all of his hard work after it — helped him “parlay” a record-breaking contract on Monday.

Wheeler and the Phillies reportedly agreed to a three-year, $126 million deal, breaking the record for average annual value in an extension. His $42 million AAV is the fourth-highest of any player (Shohei Ohtani, $70 million; Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, $43.3 million). Not bad for a guy whose career earnings prior to free agency were under $10 million. 

“I think I’ll always have that little chip on my shoulder,” Wheeler said of facing the Mets, moments after he threw a complete-game shutout against them in August 2021.

The Mets’ loss continues to be the Phillies’ gain; president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has ensured that. 

With free agency looming at the end of this upcoming season, Wheeler appeared to prioritize securing a higher AAV over a longer-term deal. Even though he’s in the same age group (33) as pitchers like Cole, Kevin Gausman and Sonny Gray, Wheeler hasn’t thrown nearly as many innings. He battled injuries, including a year-plus absence due to Tommy John surgery, early in his Mets tenure that limited the overall mileage on his arm. 

There are no opt-outs in Wheeler’s latest pact with the Phillies — which kicks in next year — but it’s possible he cashes in again when he hits the open market at 37. 

“My outlook on it, like I said — I don’t want to be old old out there, maybe not doing my best, pitching-wise,” Wheeler told reporters Monday. “I think it works out for me, I think it works out for the team, and I think we’re all in agreement on that.”

The Phillies have now sufficiently addressed their future by signing Wheeler and Aaron Nola to multiyear pacts this offseason. The team’s championship window was extended through 2027 thanks to Dombrowski’s tendency to lock up aging stars on lucrative deals. 

But, after a quiet offseason that featured no outside additions, has the savvy baseball executive done enough to strengthen this year’s Phillies roster? It’s evident that the fan base doesn’t think so, given the social-media responses to Wheeler’s extension were some variation of: Great, now who else are you signing? But the Phillies players themselves seem to be content with running it back. The current clubhouse is protective of its strong chemistry.

“I think this group of players is so close-knit, and they love each other so much, I think there’s sort of a sigh of relief when they know that everybody’s coming back,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson recently told FOX Sports. “I think they like that.” 

This 2024 Phillies roster doesn’t need much in the way of improvement in most categories. Last year’s offense — led by Bryce Harper’s 142 wRC+ — had the fifth-best slugging mark (.438) in baseball. That same bunch overpowered the 104-win Braves by eliminating them from the playoffs for the second straight October. The Phillies’ rotation had the best starting-pitching WAR (17.7) in the majors. It was an army of workhorses, too. Only starters from the Astros and Mariners logged more innings. 

Phillies’ Zack Wheeler records 8 Ks in six innings against D-backs

Ah, but what about the bullpen? For years, the Phillies’ relief corps has been their weakness. Even last year, the bullpen’s inconsistency was one of the larger reasons the Phillies were bounced by the Diamondbacks in the National League Championship Series. 

All of which makes it surprising that with Opening Day a few weeks away, the Phillies haven’t replaced Craig Kimbrel since he signed with the Orioles three months ago. Sure, Kimbrel struggled down the stretch and will be remembered for losing back-to-back games in the NLCS last year. But the veteran reliever still gave Philly 71 appearances and 69 innings amid an All-Star campaign. The Phillies don’t have any in-house relief arm that could replace his production.

Now, with high-leverage free-agent relievers like Josh Hader and Hector Neris off the board, Dombrowski seems comfortable with his current bullpen. Relievers José Alvarado, Gregory Soto, Seranthony Domínguez, Orion Kerkering, Connor Brogdon, Matt Strahm and Jeff Hoffman will try to make up for Kimbrel’s contribution. But there is a ton of uncertainty among that group. Soto and Domínguez struggled with control last season. Strahm and Hoffman had solid, sub-3.00 ERA seasons, but it’s not so wise to count on them replicating that output. 

No doubt, Wheeler’s deal is a sigh of relief for Philadelphia. The right-hander has manifested many talents, including an elite arsenal, command and consistency to become a top-five pitcher in the sport. But his job description does not include serving as a bullpen arm on the days he’s not starting. The Phillies would greatly benefit from more action by the front office besides Wheeler’s extension to better serve the team this year. Their roster remains strong, to be clear. They just need a bit more relief.

Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.

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