Home News Bill Madden: Zack Wheeler’s Phillies contract illustrates the new cost of frontline...

Bill Madden: Zack Wheeler’s Phillies contract illustrates the new cost of frontline starters

CLEARWATER — The shockwaves being felt ‘round spring training last week were the result of the Phillies upping the ante on the already exorbitant cost of frontline starting pitching by extending Zack Wheeler a year before he was to reach free agency with a three-year, $126 million contract that will take him to age 37. “Say what?” “Why?” ”How could they?” were the exclamations being heard everywhere, as the industry high $43.3 million AAV (average annual value) Max Scherzer was able to extract from Mets owner Steve Cohen back in November 2021 can no longer be considered an outlier but actually the benchmark for a No. 1 starting pitcher.

But Phillies owner John Middleton, who is acting every bit the financial heavyweight as Cohen, clearly doesn’t care what his fellow lodge members might be saying about the Wheeler extension. He knows what the cost of No. 1 starters has become — last month he publicly revealed that he had offered more than the Dodgers’ 12-year, $325 million winning bid for Japanese right-hander Yoshinobu Yamamoto — and he’s going to do what he has to do to keep the Phillies competitive with the Braves in the NL East.

“It all came down to Zack’s desire to pitch here and knowing what it was going to cost in the free agent market to keep him,” Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski told me the other day. “By doing this now instead of waiting until the end of the year we were able to limit the number of years. Once a player gets into the market you don’t know what might happen.”

Once the Wheeler deal was announced, it was thought it might have immediate repercussions for the Yankees with Gerrit Cole, who has an opt-out in his nine-year, $324 million contract after this year. But the Yankees very cleverly inserted an “opt-out blocker” in their deal with Cole in which, if he does decide to opt out after this year, they can counter it by adding a 10th year at $36 million to his contract. Had they not done that, they would have suddenly found themselves doubly at the mercy of Scott Boras next offseason, who would have most certainly been seeking to up Cole’s AAV to that of Wheeler (who’s never won a Cy Young) while at the same time negotiating with Boras on what he anticipates being a record free agent contract for Juan Soto (very possibly in a mano-a-mano showdown with Cohen). But instead of having to negotiate a whole new contract for Cole if he decides to opt out, the most it will cost the Yankees is another $36 million at the end of the deal.

Meanwhile, the day after the Phillies’ Wheeler extension was announced, the cost of frontline starting pitching took equal billing on two other fronts when the Red Sox announced that Lucas Giolito, by far their biggest free agent signing of the offseason with a two-year, $38.5 million contract was going to be lost for the season with a partial tear of his UCL, and in Cardinals camp it was revealed that Sonny Gray, to whom they gave a three-year, $75 million deal to be their No. 1, was going to be sidelined indefinitely with what was termed a mild hamstring pull and most likely will not be ready for Opening Day.

The Cardinals can only hope Gray, who’s had a history of hamstring issues, will not miss much time. They had one of the worst starting rotations in baseball last year, ranking 29th out of 30 in strikeouts and they moved quickly to sign the 34-year-old Gray, who was coming off a season with the Twins in which he logged his most starts since 2014. On the other hand, the Red Sox, who had the one of the worst rotations in the AL last year, are in a real bind now with the loss of Giolito, who they were counting on to be a No. 1-type for them. Boras is out there, waiting in prey with his two unsigned starters, Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery, and the pressure is now on new Red Sox GM Craig Breslow to abandon the Sawx’s newfound austerity stance of no long-term contracts.

However, the unspoken opinion in Boston is that, even with Giolito, the Red Sox were no better than a fourth place team in the AL East and to invest another $80-100 million on Montgomery wouldn’t make them much better. In the meantime, there is probably considerable regret on the Red Sox’s part they didn’t insure Giolito’s contract.

It is my contention the baseball owners have no one to blame but themselves for the high cost of frontline starting pitching. Because of pitch counts, innings limits and the analytics credo of not allowing starting pitchers to face batters a third time around the order, baseball has created a whole new generation of five-inning starters. Soon, the 200-inning starter will become extinct. And the ones who are able to consistently pitch deeper into games — like Wheeler — are going to cost their clubs dearly.

I asked Dombrowski how it has come to this?

“More than anything,” he said, “it’s because of the concern for injuries. Years ago, a pitcher comes up with a sore arm and they’d be told to pitch through it. It was a whole different mentality. Now, of course, we have all sorts of imagery and technology and we are extra cautious with pitchers.”

Mind you, Dombrowski is an old school baseball exec, and I got the feeling he agreed with me that starting pitchers should be pitching more not less. He’s locked up his two top-of-the-rotation workhorses, Wheeler and Aaron Nola, (for the record he’ll be paying Wheeler and Nola a combined $66 million these next few seasons which is more than the entire 2023 payroll of the A’s) but he acknowledged it’s just as important to be grooming pitchers behind them to be more than five-inning starters.

“We let our starters pitch more than any other organization,” said Dombrowski, “and we’ll be doing that with our two top prospects [Mick] Abel and [Andrew] Painter [who is missing all this season with Tommy John surgery]. It’s hard [to develop Wheelers] if you don’t start them at a young age rather than later.”


With so many teams still in need of frontline starting pitching, a question comes to mind: What about Trevor Bauer? The 2020 NL Cy Young Award winner who was later suspended by baseball for 324 games after being involved in a lurid sexual abuse scandal, spent last year pitching in the Nippon Professional League and by all accounts did not appear to have lost any velocity and still had great command. But no team expressed any interest in him this winter and so he paid to join up with an independent minor league team called the Asian Breeze which will be playing against other minor league teams this spring in Arizona. In fact, Bauer was scheduled to pitch against his former team, the Dodgers, Sunday. But according to numerous team sources I talked to it’s unlikely any major league team will sign him. “Just too toxic,” is what one team exec said. … A flurry of throwing errors by Gavin Lux created a panic in Dodger camp last week and all of a sudden Mookie Betts will be taking over shortstop, with Lux moving to second. Lux was the heir apparent to the Dodger shortstop job last year before tearing up his knee in spring training, which cost him the entire 2023 season. The Dodgers already have a defensive liability at third base with Max Muncy, who was moved there from DH after the signing of Shohei Ohtani and Lux’s throwing struggles prompted manager Dave Roberts to move quickly to shore up the defense.


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