- Left-hander Cole Hamels said earlier this offseason he’d be open to a return to Philadelphia, where he thrived at the beginning of his career. Hamels wound up accepting the division-rival Braves’ one-year, $18MM offer on Wednesday, but the Phillies were among his suitors before then. They put forth a one-year proposal worth roughly half what Hamels got from the Braves, per Todd Zolecki of MLB.com. With that in mind, it’s no surprise Hamels turned down a return to Philadelphia. Meanwhile, the starter-needy Phillies made a much bigger splash to improve their rotation Wednesday, as they agreed to sign ex-Met Zack Wheeler to a five-year, $118MM pact.
- The Twins were also among the most ardent teams in pursuit of Wheeler, according to La Velle E. Neal of the Star Tribune. They offered Wheeler a five-year, $100MM offer, but the Phillies upended them. Had Wheeler taken the Twins’ offer, it would have been the richest in franchise history. Now, even after Jake Odorizzi accepted a qualifying offer from the Twins, they’re still in clear need of starting help. Odorizzi and Jose Berrios are the only sure things for Minnesota’s 2020 rotation, meaning we probably haven’t seen the last of the team’s starting pursuits this winter. Indeed, the Twins seem to be aggressively going after free-agent left-hander Madison Bumgarner.
The Phillies have made the biggest free-agent splash of the offseason to date, as they reached a reported five-year, $118MM agreement with free-agent right-hander Zack Wheeler on Wednesday afternoon. The contract is still pending a physical. Wheeler is represented by Jet Sports Management.
Wheeler, 29, has been arguably the most in-demand pitcher on the free agent market early in the offseason. While he’s regarded as the third-best arm on the market behind Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, that duo’s sky-high earning power priced out a number of pitching-needy teams from the outset. Wheeler, however, has been viewed as a more affordable pitcher with high-end stuff — one whom many believe can still take another step forward in the years to come.
Of course, that’s not to say that the current iteration of Wheeler isn’t a quality arm; he very much is. Over his past 55 Major League starts, the right-hander has worked to a 3.47 ERA (3.27 FIP) with 9.0 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 0.82 HR/9 and a 43.1 percent ground-ball rate in 349 2/3 innings. He’s distanced himself from Tommy John surgery and the ensuing complications that wiped out nearly two full seasons of his career, combining to make 60 starts dating back to Opening Day 2018.
Wheeler was also the second-hardest-throwing starter on the open market, with his career-best 96.7 mph average heater trailing only the aforementioned Cole. Beyond that, he possesses above-average spin on his heater and curveball, and he’s excelled in terms of minimizing hard contact against him (90th percentile average exit-velocity among MLB starters, per Statcast). Given that he’s played in front of one the worst defenses in the game over the past couple of seasons, there’s a belief that he could excel with a change of scenery, although it’s of course worth noting that the Philadelphia defense has had its own share of struggles over that same time.
Rotation help has been the clear top priority for the Phillies this winter, as their collective group of starters was a decidedly subpar group in 2019. Philadelphia entered the season with Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta anchoring the starting staff. And, after a 2018-19 offseason that focused largely on augmenting the lineup, the Phils leaned heavily on younger, inexperienced arms like Zach Eflin, Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez to round out the rotation.
Of that trio, only Eflin yielded any real dividends, however. The 25-year-old proved a serviceable fourth starter with a 4.13 ERA over 28 starts (32 total appearances), while Pivetta and Velasquez combined for an ERA well north of 5.00. Meanwhile, Arrieta struggled through his worst performance since his breakout and ultimately underwent season-ending surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow. Even Nola, who finished third in 2018 NL Cy Young voting, took a notable step back in 2019. The end result was a Phillies starting staff that finished 17th in ERA (4.64), 24th in FIP (4.91) and 16th in xFIP (4.59) last year.
Wheeler will now slot into the Phillies’ rotation alongside Nola, Eflin and Arrieta — with the hope being that the removal of the bone spur through which Arrieta pitched in 2019 will help to bring about a rejuvenation of sorts. There’s still room for another rotation addition, to be sure, and there’s also room on the payroll to make that a reality. Before agreeing to terms with Wheeler, the Phils’ payroll checked in a bit shy of $150MM (including projected arbitration salaries). They’ll see Arrieta, David Robertson and the small portion of the Jay Bruce contract they’re paying all come off the books next season, lending some long-term flexibility even in spite of substantial commitments to Wheeler, Bryce Harper and others.
Earlier this offseason, Philadelphia general manager Matt Klentak voiced a preference to eventually move away from signing players who’ve rejected qualifying offers, but it appears that was far from a mandate, as the Phillies will now do so for a third consecutive winter. Signing Wheeler will cost Philadelphia its second-round pick and $500K of international bonus allotments. The Mets, meanwhile, will pick up a compensatory draft pick after Competitive Balance Round B — likely in the 75 to 80 range of next year’s draft. They’ll also, of course, now be on the lookout for another starting pitcher — although they were never viewed as a serious player to re-sign Wheeler.
Geography played a pivotal role in Wheeler’s decision to sign with Philadelphia, it seems. The Athletic’s Marc Carig, who first broke the news, noted in his original report that Wheeler’s fiancee is from nearby New Jersey, and Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic tweets that the White Sox’ bid on Wheeler was actually higher than that of the Phillies. Meanwhile, Darren Wolfson of 1500 SKOR North in Minneapolis tweets that the Twins, too, made a five-year offer to Wheeler and that money wasn’t the ultimate factor in rejecting that bid. Presumably, an offer that blew Philadelphia’s out of the water could’ve swayed Wheeler to stray from the East Coast, but it seems that family considerations won the day when final bids wound up comparable.
In the end, Wheeler drew varying levels of interest from the White Sox, Twins, Reds, Astros, Rangers, Yankees and Blue Jays before his agreement with the Phils. That level of interest was largely foreseeable, and the fit with the Phillies has long been a particularly sensible one, as was predicted on MLBTR’s Top 50 Free Agent list at the start of the offseason. The choice of destination proved to be spot on, but the considerable interest in Wheeler ultimately pushed his guarantee north of the five years and $100MM estimate put forth at that time.
Marc Carig of The Athletic broke news of the agreement (via Twitter). Bob Nightengale of USA Today, ESPN’s Jeff Passan and Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia all reported financial details on the contract (all links to Twitter).
1:15pm: The Braves have formally announced the signing and (unlike most clubs) confirmed the terms of the contract in their press release. Their 40-man roster is now up to 38 players.
Hamels can still get the job done as he closes in on his 36th birthday. Despite losing more than a full tick on his fastball from 2018-2019, he generated swings and misses at close to a twelve percent rate — much as he has done throughout his 14-year career. Since landing with the Cubs in the second half of the 2018 campaign, Hamels has spun 218 innings of 3.30 ERA ball over 39 starts while maintaining 9.0 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9.
This match has long made sense — for all the reasons the team decided last year to ink fellow veteran southpaw Dallas Keuchel to a rental contract. MLBTR predicted Hamels to land in Atlanta in our ranking of the top fifty free agents.
Entering the winter, we believed Hamels could command a two-year deal at a $15MM AAV. But it emerged soon after the market opened that the veteran southpaw actually preferred a single-season mercenary arrangement. That’s just what he’ll get, and he’ll command a bit of a salary premium by foregoing any long-term security.
Hamels drew widespread interest over the past month. That continued into the month of December, with Bob Nightengale reporting (Twitter link) that a half-dozen organizations were still involved as of yesterday. The Phillies, White Sox, Rangers, and — surprisingly — the Giants were among the teams in the market until the end, per the report.
That Philadelphia link only further increases the NL East intrigue that we’re bound to see in 2020. While he is a few years removed from his tenure with the Phils, Hamels will always be known first and foremost as a long-time Phillies hurler who was one of the team’s key players during its last run of success.
Now, Hamels will try to help the Braves get over the hump. The Atlanta org has won the past two division crowns, but hasn’t yet managed to translate that success into the postseason. Hamels promises to step in for Keuchel as a durable veteran who has been there and done that plenty of times over a long and prosperous career.
This is the latest early strike for the Braves, who have already ticked through quite a few items on the checklist before the Winter Meetings even kick off. Hamels isn’t the top-of-the-rotation arm that might be preferred, but his addition doesn’t preclude further adds. For now, though, the focus will likely remain on re-signing or replacing third baseman Josh Donaldson.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
While the level of interest isn’t entirely clear, the Phillies are at least considering a move for veteran starter Stephen Strasburg, according to Jon Heyman of MLB Network (via Twitter). The organization is said to be “looking at” plucking a star from the division-rival Nationals for a second consecutive winter.
There are many other possibilities for Strasburg, who wrapped up an outstanding (and rather redemptive) season in D.C. before opting out of his contract in favor of the open market. As Heyman notes, there’s still a sense that Strasburg could well line up again with the Nats. But many of the game’s highest-spending organizations have already shown interest as well.
Strasburg would be a big addition to any rotation, but he’d be of particular import to a Phillies staff that was filled with struggles last year. Like many other teams, the Phils are looking both for impact and reliability. Stras has consistently delivered the former … at least, when healthy. Concerns with his durability are in some regards overstated. He’s fresh off of a dominant and complete season at 31 years of age. Since returning from Tommy John surgery, Strasburg has averaged 28 starts and 168 innings annually (including his infamous 2012 shutdown campaign).
While the Phillies have indicated trepidation at coughing up draft compensation to add a free agent, that’s simply the requisite ante to sit at the high-stakes table. Strasburg is a good enough player that teams can mostly ignore the lost draft capital. That’s particularly true now that he has thoroughly erased any doubts (as unjustified as they were in the first place) over his big-game capabilities. Recently crowned the World Series MVP, Strasburg has passed every test thrown at him in the postseason with flying colors. In 55 1/3 career playoff frames, he owns a sparkling 1.46 ERA with 11.5 K/9 and 1.3 BB/9.
- Speaking of Wheeler, it seems that a deal is indeed on the cusp of coming together. Ken Rosenthal said as much in an appearance on MLB Network (Twitter link), noting that we could even see an agreement struck today. Rosenthal believes it’s a three-team race between the Phillies, White Sox, and Reds, though he cautions that the bidding isn’t fully limited to those organizations. We’ll be keeping a close watch on Wheeler.
There’s momentum in the market for righty Zack Wheeler, who is reportedly already sitting on a nine-figure offer. The Phillies are now perhaps the strongest pursuer of the 29-year-old, Buster Olney of ESPN.com reports.
With the Philadelphia organization firmly entering the picture, Wheeler is sitting in an enviable position. There are a host of other teams still in the picture. Olney cites the Reds, White Sox, and Rangers as remaining involved. We’ve previously heard of intense interest from the Twins, who were reportedly still in the picture as of yesterday.
In another report this morning, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic (via Twitter) suggests that the Reds and White Sox are the other teams most clearly in the mix with the Phillies. But it’s still a fluid bidding situation, so far as is known publicly. Indeed, Rosenthal adds that the Angels “have shown real interest,” though their status at the moment isn’t clear.
This could be building into a perfect storm for Wheeler, whose big arm and relative youth hold obvious appeal. It seems teams have come to terms with his history of arm issues and are banking on a two-year track record of durability. In our ranking of the top 50 free agents, we predicted widespread interest to drive Wheeler to a five-year, $100MM deal with the Phillies. It now seems he will top that guarantee; Olney even floats the possibility that a team will end up offering a sixth year to land the in-demand hurler.
Neither outcome is surprising, but the non-tenders will nonetheless bring about the end of an era for the Phillies’ infield. Both Hernandez and Franco had been mainstays for the Phillies over the past few seasons. The switch-hitting, high-on base Hernandez was the more valuable of the two, as he was a 2.0- to 4.0-fWAR player in each season from 2016-18. Hernandez’s numbers took a step back this year, a 1.7-fWAR season in which he hit .279/.333/.408 with 14 home runs across 667 plate appearances. He’d been slated to receive a $11.8MM in arbitration thereafter, but that was too rich for the Phillies. They’ll now look for another solution at the keystone.
Philly’s also now on the lookout for a new third baseman after cutting Franco, whom the team once viewed as its long-term answer there. But Franco, despite his prodigious power, seldom lived up to the billing after an impressive rookie campaign with the Phillies in 2015. The 27-year-old’s now coming off a season in which he batted a miserable .234/.297/.409 with 17 dingers and minus-0.5 fWAR over 428 PA. He looked like an obvious non-tender candidate thanks to those numbers, and with a projected $6.7MM coming his way in 2020, the Phillies went the expected route and cut him loose.
With tonight’s 8pm ET deadline to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players looming, there’ll be several players who agree to one-year contracts for the 2020 season today. It’s common for the day of the non-tender deadline to be a big one for arbitration agreements, though it’s also worth noting that many of the players who agree to terms today will do so at a rate that’s lower than the salary figures projected by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz.
Broadly speaking, players who agree to terms on a salary this far in advance tend to be those who were at risk of being non-tendered, and their teams are able to use tonight’s deadline as leverage in bringing about a deal that saves them a bit of cash. A look at some of the early instances of players agreeing to terms reveals this to be true already; Mike Zunino ($4.5MM salary vs. $4.9MM projection), Wilmer Difo ($1MM salary vs. $1.2MM projection) and Scott Alexander ($875K salary vs. $1MM projection) have all agreed to lesser terms rather than risk being cast out into the free-agent market.
We’ll keep track of today’s players who avoid arbitration in this post and update throughout the day…
- The Padres have a deal for $1.5MM with infielder Greg Garcia, Bob Nightengale of USA Today tweets. That’s a shade under his $1.7MM projection for the 30-year-old.
- Infielder Orlando Arcia has avoided arbitration with the Brewers, per Bob Nightengale of USA Today (via Twitter). Though he’s set to lose some playing time, it seems Arcia will be expected to retain a notable role. He’s considered a talented defender at short and was long expected to come around with the bat, but it hasn’t happened yet.
- Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes is in agreement on a $1.1MM deal, per Robert Murray (Twitter link). It’s a guaranteed deal, which isn’t standard for arbitration pacts. Barnes had projected at $1.3MM on the heels of a disappointing season. It seems he’ll be asked to function as the club’s second backstop in 2020.
- The Rangers have a deal in place with right-hander Nick Goody, the club announced. He’ll earn $915K, according to MLB.com’s TR Sullivan (via Twitter). Goody projected to earn $1.1MM, so he’s taking a discount on that mark with his new club.
- Just-acquired righty Jharel Cotton has agreed to a $640K deal with the Cubs, Rosenthal tweets. Cotton had projected at $800K but he’s surely focused first and foremost on getting a significant MLB opportunity. He didn’t quite make it back to the majors in 2019 after a long injury layoff but figures to represent a swingman option for the Chicago club in 2020.
- Outfielder Alex Dickerson and lefty Wandy Peralta are in agreement with the Giants, per Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic (Twitter links). Dickerson settled for $925K, which is well under his $1.2MM projected earning power. The 29-year-old has had trouble staying healthy but usually hits when he is on the field. He rewarded the San Francisco organization for taking a shot on him last year by turning in a .290/.351/.529 batting line in 171 plate appearances. As for Peralta, he lands right at his projected value with a $805K salary. The 28-year-old was claimed off waivers late in the 2019 season.
- The White Sox and James McCann avoided arbitration with a one-year deal worth $5.4MM, tweets ESPN’s Jeff Passan. McCann’s deal checks in a half million dollars north of his $4.9MM projection. Chicago’s addition of Yasmani Grandal has likely relegated McCann to backup duties, so he’ll be a rather expensive second catcher for the South Siders. A free agent next winter, McCann hit .273/.328/.460 with a career-high 18 home runs, but his bat went dormant in the season’s final few months and his .359 BABIP seems particularly ripe for regression.
- The Athletics avoided arbitration with left-handed reliever T.J. McFarland by agreeing to a one-year contract worth $1.8MM, USA Today’s Bob Nightengale tweets. That salary effectively puts McFarland in line for the same salary he’d have received had he had his $1.85MM club option exercised by the Diamondbacks. Arizona, however, bought him out for $50K and then ran him through waivers, at which point the A’s claimed him. The 30-year-old posted a 4.82 ERA with a middling 5.6 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9 in 56 2/3 innings this past season, but he’s a ground-ball behemoth (61.1 percent). He’ll be a free agent next winter and had been projected at $2.1MM.
- Infielder Ehire Adrianza and the Twins agreed on a $1.6MM salary for the upcoming season, Nightengale tweets. The versatile utilityman hit .272/.349/.416 in 236 plate appearances while appearing at all four infield spots and both outfield corners. Adrianza, a free agent next winter, was projected at $1.9MM.
- Outfielder Travis Jankowski agreed to a rare arbitration pay cut with the Reds, Bobby Nightengale Jr. of the Cincinnati Enquirer tweets. After earning $1.165MM in 2019, he’ll be owed $1.05MM in 2020 if he makes the club. A fractured wrist cost him much of the season in 2019, and he was just 4-for-22 when healthy and in the Majors. Jankowski did have a nice season in Triple-A, though (.393 OBP in 39 games), and the Reds gave up some international funds to acquire him, which seemingly indicated that they planned to tender him a contract. He was projected to earn $1.2MM.
The Phillies announced that they have claimed righty Trevor Kelley off waivers from the Red Sox. He had been selected to the Boston roster in July.
Kelley, 26, didn’t exactly stake a claim to a permanent job in his brief action last year at the game’s highest level. He didn’t get many swings and misses and surrendered eight earned runs in his first 8 1/3 big league innings.
But there was a reason that the Red Sox called upon the sidearming, sinkerballing newcomer. In his 65 1/3 Triple-A innings, Kelley carried a 1.79 ERA that stood out in the hitter-friendly International League. While his peripherals — 8.7 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 1.10 HR/9, 33.5% groundball rate — weren’t exactly eye-popping, Kelley showed enough to make the Phils believe he can at least serve as worthwhile pen depth.
The Cubs are set to hire Craig Driver as their new first base and catching coach, ESPN.com’s Jesse Rogers reports (Twitter link). Driver will replace Will Venable as Chicago’s first base coach, though president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said earlier this month that Venable would be returning to the Cubs’ staff in 2020. The most obvious spot for Venable seems to be at third base, as former third base coach Brian Butterfield left the Cubs to join former manager Joe Maddon in Anaheim.
Driver has spent the last two seasons as the Phils’ receiving coach and bullpen catcher, following five years coaching at Yale, Central Washington University, and the University Of Puget Sound. As the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Scott Lauber outlined in a piece last August, J.T. Realmuto’s caught-stealing numbers greatly increased on Driver’s watch, as Realmuto’s 46.7% caught stealing percentage in 2019 dwarfed his previous career best of 38.2%. Realmuto’s framing and blocking also improved, as per Baseball Prospectus, turning a player who was already the sport’s best catcher into one of its best all-around performers at any position.
The Cubs would love to see Willson Contreras make such a leap, as Contreras has only been roughly average at throwing out baserunners during his career. Framing has also long been considered an issue for the two-time All-Star, though BP and StatCorner differed wildly in their evaluations of Contreras’ framing work in 2019. StatCorner ranked Contreras as the 17th-best pitch-framer in the game last season, while Baseball Prospectus ranked him 109th of 113 catchers in the Framing Runs category.
As Rogers noted in another tweet, Driver joins a coaching staff that is deep in catching knowledge. Newly-hired manager David Ross and quality assurance coach Mike Napoli have a combined 1344 games of big league experience behind the plate, while current catching, strategy, and associate pitching coach Mike Borzello still seems to be a member of the 2020 staff. It could be that Driver’s responsibilities will continue to focus largely on receiving and he’ll operate alongside Borzello in working with Contreras, Victor Caratini, and the organization’s other backstops. It’s worth noting that Driver was one of two catching coaches on Philadelphia’s staff, alongside Bob Stumpo.