Detroit Tigers Trade Target: Zack Wheeler

Aug 22, 2020; Cumberland, Georgia, USA; Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Zack Wheeler (45) pitches against the Atlanta Braves during the first inning at Truist Park. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 22, 2020; Cumberland, Georgia, USA; Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Zack Wheeler (45) pitches against the Atlanta Braves during the first inning at Truist Park. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports /

Philadelphia Phillies’ starter Zack Wheeler is apparently on the market now. Could the Detroit Tigers trade for him to kick-start their rebuild?

Philadelphia is the latest team looking to cut costs after the shortened 2020 season, and according to Buster Olney of ESPN, that means Zack Wheeler could be on the move:

"The Philadelphia Phillies have communicated to other teams that they are facing a financial crunch and are open to offers for their second-highest-paid player, starting pitcher Zack Wheeler, according to sources."

This is an abrupt about-face for the Phillies, who just climbed out of their protracted rebuild two years ago when they traded for J.T. Realmuto and then signed Bryce Harper to his massive 13-year, $330 million contract.

Then came Zack Wheeler’s 5-year, $118 million deal last winter, which made it seem like the Phillies were very serious about contending again. But a surging Braves team, a historically bad bullpen, and the financial realities of a shortened season have apparently conspired to put the breaks on the Philly rebuild.

Philadelphia denied the rumors, though the comments from managing general partner John Middleton border on Hamlet-level protestation:

We have no idea what kind of financial shape the Detroit Tigers are in heading into 2021. Realistically, it’s probably not much better than Philidelphia, though we do know the Phillies are staring at a $130 million payroll, while the Tigers are coming in around $65 million.

And the Tigers probably aren’t keen to add Zack Wheeler’s contract after having just gotten out from under Jordan Zimmermann’s very similar deal. But should they be? Could Wheeler be the veteran rotation anchor they wanted Zimmermann to be? Let’s take a look and find out.

Who is Zack Wheeler?

The San Francisco Giants took Zack Wheeler sixth overall in the 2009 draft out of the famed East Cobb high-school program in Georgia. He was considered one of the best high-school pitchers in the class (along with Tigers draftee Jacob Turner, among others) thanks to a fastball that touched the mid-90s, a power breaking ball, and ideal size and athleticism for a pitcher.

Zack Wheeler didn’t dominate in his first pro seasons, but he performed well enough, posting a 3.99 ERA over 58.2 innings in Low-A in 2010 and then pitching to an identical ERA through 16 starts in High-A in 2011. Then, in seemingly one of the last deals of its kind, the Giants traded their top pitching prospect to the Mets for what ended up being 44 games of Carlos Beltran.

Wheeler took off with the Mets, producing a 2.00 ERA over his final six starts in 2011, and then pitching his way to Triple-A in 2012. After 13 more outings in the minors Wheeler made his MLB debut on June 18, 2013, tossing six scoreless innings in a 6-1 win over the Braves.

He instantly became a key part of the rotation, making each of his next 48 starts and compiling a solid 3.50 ERA. But in spring training in 2015 Zack Wheeler tore his UCL and underwent Tommy John surgery, costing him the entire season.

Wheeler threw just one inning in 2016, as well, straining his forearm after throwing only 17 pitches. He returned to the big leagues in 2017, but he was limited to just over 86 innings with multiple arm injuries.

It certainly looked as though Zack Wheeler was just going to be another promising pitcher whose career was ruined by injuries. But then he went out and made 60 starts over the next two seasons, ranking 12th among all starters in innings pitched and 10th in fWAR from 2018-2019.

Then last year Wheeler produced a career-best 2.92 ERA over 71 innings, though he suddenly morphed from a classic strikeout pitcher into a surprisingly effective ground-ball specialist.

Does Zack Wheeler Make Sense for Detroit?

The Detroit Tigers definitely need to add a starter or two in 2021. They will of course want to work in all of their top pitching prospects at some point, but they can’t expect those kids to handle a full starter’s workload.

The main concern with Zack Wheeler here is his injury history. Even though he’s been healthy for three seasons now, it’s hard to ignore that three-year run of arm trouble earlier in his career. He also had a fingernail issue this year that required surgery after the season.

And then there’s the strange numbers this past season. They are probably best summed up by the table below:

Wheeler went from a strikeout pitcher to a groundball pitcher, but the results were strong and he threw harder than ever. Strangely, he threw more four-seamers and fewer sinkers than he did in 2019, but the grounders came in bunches.

Lee Goldsmith from the Phillies blog The Good Phight wrote a terrific breakdown of what he thought happened. It’s a good read if you’re interested in pitch design, but for our purposes we just need to know Wheeler’s drop in strikeouts weren’t from a sudden lack of stuff, but from a deliberate attempt to tunnel his fastball and curve to make his entire arsenal harder to identify.

The Cost of Zack Wheeler

Zack Wheeler is due $96.5 million over the next four years. That’s a healthy chunk of change, equating to production in the realm of 10-12 WAR. ZiPS projects Wheeler for 6.2 WAR over the next two seasons, so with proper health he should at least come close to justifying his cost.

As we often do in these pieces, we turn to Baseball Trade Values for some fun pretend trades. They think Wheeler still has some surplus value, so this will cost the Detroit Tigers some decent pieces.

There is one other aspect of this trade we need to consider. When he was a free agent in 2019, Zack Wheeler apparently chose the Phillies over more money from the White Sox, reportedly to be closer to his wife’s home state New Jersey.

Wheeler doesn’t appear to have a no-trade clause, but if the Phillies do decide to trade him and they have multiple fair offers, they could theoretically give him the option of where to go. That means the Tigers might have to offer a bit extra to beat a team like the Yankees, or even prevent a reunion with the Mets.

Here’s an offer that could get it done:

The Phillies get help at catcher and on the mound, whether Faedo sticks in the rotation or eventually finds a spot in the bullpen, and in Cabrera they get an outfielder with an advanced bat who could be starting in left field by the middle of 2022.

One thing we learn from writing trade pieces, like these on German Marquez and Blake Snell, is it’s much easier to write about a blockbuster trade than it is to complete one. And the Detroit Tigers certainly don’t want to follow in Philly’s footsteps and watch their rebuild peter out before it really begins.

But at some point rebuilding teams need to take the plunge, and Zack Wheeler could be the sort of rotation stalwart who helps lead the Tigers back to contention.