Exploring the idea of the San Diego Padres signing Zack Wheeler this winter.
The ultimate destinations for top pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole will be the top story this offseason in Major League baseball. Either pitcher would completely change the dynamic for the Padres’ expectations next season. Imagine a rotation of Strasburg or Cole followed by Chris Paddack, Garrett Richards, and Dinelson Lamet.
But the Padres face competition from multiple teams in a bidding war for the services of either and may need to set their sights just a bit lower. A pitcher like Zack Wheeler fits that bill. The San Francisco Giants drafted Wheeler in 2009 and traded him to the New York Meets in 2011. At 29, he compiled 4.1 WAR last year with a 3.96 ERA, 3.27 FIP, and 1.259 WHIP over 195.1 innings. He struck out 195 batters and walked just 50. Other teams have already expressed interest in Wheeler, including the Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago White Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, so the Padres will have to open their wallet to acquire the second-tier starter.
While still young, Wheeler has more experience than a Paddack or Lamet, having started his career in 2013 at the age of 23. He averages 96.7 on his fastball and throws two hard breaking pitches as well as a changeup. Ben Clemens of FanGraphs (“Zack Wheeler is Good, But Not as Good as He Could Be“), labels Wheeler as the “the kind of guy you’d love to have as a No. 2 starter and one who can fake it as a No. 1.” Clemens concludes that tweaks, including increasing breaking pitches to put hitters away, could raise Wheeler’s profile to true ace status.
In the past, the Padres could count on the pitcher whisperer known as Darren Balsley to take a mediocre pitcher and turn him into a serviceable one and to achieve even better results with those with real talent. However, in the surprise of the offseason so far, the team has parted ways with Balsley, who had been a Padres’ mainstay since May 2003. Balsley will be replaced at the Major League level by the 65-year-old Larry Rothschild, who spent nine seasons with the New York Yankees as pitching coach. Balsley will reportedly remain with the team working with minor leaguers.
After two promising years in the big leagues, Wheeler was diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in March 2015 and underwent Tommy John surgery. He lost all of that year and most of the subsequent season thanks to a flexor strain in his right arm. But Wheeler is coming off two healthy seasons and has fewer than 800 innings on his arm in his career. Overall he has compiled a 44-38 record, 3.77 ERA, 1.294 WHIP, and a total WAR of 12.6, according to FanGraphs.
Other tempting starters may become available over the winter but would require that general manager A.J. Preller give up coveted prospects, which he has been reluctant to do. With the payroll estimated to be around $120 million range (a figure never approached in the history of the franchise), the amount of wiggle room Preller will be allowed remains to be seen. But Wheeler most certainly will not demand any sum close to that of the $32.9 million a year proposed by Spotrac for Gerrit Cole.
With luck, Zack Wheeler could be the next best thing to a Cole or a Strasburg.