Whichever team signs Zack Wheeler in free agency will be tasked with turning him into something more than just a league-average pitcher, lest a lucrative multiyear contract go to waste.
That sounds like a job for the Houston Astros.
As they seek to recover from a heartbreaking loss in the World Series, their top priority in free agency is ostensibly to re-sign American League Cy Young runner-up Gerrit Cole. The 29-year-old right-hander is coming off spectacular efforts in the regular season (2.50 ERA and 326 strikeouts) and postseason (1.72 ERA and 47 strikeouts).
However, Astros owner Jim Crane is making no promises regarding negotiations with Cole and super-agent Scott Boras.
"We're going to take a run at it," Crane said, according to Brian McTaggart of MLB.com. "We don't know if we can get to where they want to get. Boras is tough to deal with."
Crane had previously waffled on a possible run at Cole, in part because it was his preference not to trigger any luxury-tax penalties in 2020. To that end, the Astros are already projected to be more than $30 million over the $208 million threshold.
That doesn't mean the Astros can't re-sign Cole. But since his next deal is likely to cost north of $30 million per year, bringing him back would take Houston's luxury-tax status from bad to much worse.
It's no wonder, then, that reports have linked the Astros to alternative options on the open market. Per Jon Heyman of MLB Network, Wheeler is one of them:
Projections for Wheeler's contract range from $68 million over four years at FanGraphs to $100 million over five years at MLB Trade Rumors. Because he rejected a qualifying offer from the New York Mets, he's also tied to draft-pick compensation.
Such figures would look like bargain prices if Wheeler had the track record of a tried-and-true ace. But his actual track record is...well, not that.
Though the 29-year-old right-hander is fully recovered from a 2015 Tommy John operation that sidelined him for two seasons, he has yet to pitch more than 200 innings in a season, and his career ERA+ is a perfectly average 100. So it went in 2019, which he finished with a 102 ERA+.
What makes Wheeler more appealing than your garden-variety average hurler is that he throws very, very hard. Among qualified starters in 2019, his 96.7 mph fastball ranked fourth and his 91.2 mph slider ranked second.
Wheeler also effectively buried his former problem with walks. He posted a career-best rate of 2.7 walks per nine innings in 2018 and then beat it with a 2.3 mark this season.
And yet his ability to overpower hitters is oddly tame. His contact rates have typically been roughly average relative to his fellow starting pitchers:
Wheeler fares better as a contact manager, as he notably ranked 12th among qualified starters (minimum 250 batted balls) in 2019 with an average exit velocity mark of 86.2 mph.
However, that doesn't mean he was screwed out of better results by the Mets' defense, at least in 2019. Though the Mets did indeed have one of the least efficient defenses in MLB, Wheeler's expected production on batted balls (.366 xwOBA) mirrored his actual production (.365 wOBA).
Because Wheeler already has electric stuff and good control, it's possible that the right pitch mix is the only thing standing between him and legitimate stardom. This isn't for lack of trying, as he's toyed around with as many as six different pitches:
Wheeler's big shift in 2019 involved throwing his sinker more often. Since this backfired to the tune of a gnarly .347 wOBA against it, his best move is arguably to scrap the pitch altogether and emphasize what does work in his repertoire.
In theory, any team could suggest this change to Wheeler. But if the Astros were to do it, the suggestion would carry a little more weight.
For instance, take what they went through with Cole after he came over from the Pittsburgh Pirates in January 2018. As outlined in Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik's book, The MVP Machine, it took only one meeting for the Astros to convince Cole to overhaul his plan of attack to be less about his sinker and more about his four-seam fastball and curveball:
A similar overhaul might work just as well for Wheeler. Not counting his seldom-used splitter, his four-seamer, slider and curveball had the best whiff (27.1, 26.6 and 28.1 percent) and put-away (20.3, 19.5 and 22.9 percent) rates of his primary pitches in 2019.
If there's a fly in this particular ointment, it's that Wheeler's slider isn't quite as good as its whiff and put-away rates indicate. It doesn't have exceptional spin to match its exceptional velocity, and it yielded a higher slugging percentage (.362) and more home runs (five) than even his four-seamer.
But that's also something the Astros could potentially help with.
Though the specifics are murky, the gist of their story with Justin Verlander is that they did something to his slider that emboldened him to throw it more often after they acquired him from the Detroit Tigers in August 2017. To wit, it's become an increasingly featured pitch as Verlander has captured a World Series ring, two All-Stars nods and a Cy Young Award in his two-plus seasons in Houston.
Of course, it'll take two for the Astros and Wheeler to tango. Competition for him and his considerable upside figures to be fierce. And even if the Astros make him the best offer, Wheeler might not want to join them while they're awaiting penalties from MLB's probe into cheating allegations, which Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic first reported.
"Any allegations that relate to a rule violation that could affect the outcome of a game or games is the most serious matter," MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said Tuesday, according to ESPN's Jeff Passan.
Nevertheless, there aren't many better potential matches in free agency than this one. Somehow, some way, the Astros should make it happen.