The Astros could possibly target Mets pitcher Zack Wheeler in free agency.
As the hot stove season starts to heat up (we hope), Gerrit Cole is obviously the big prize. The Astros are going to make a push to bring back their ace, but doing so might be overextending their payroll. With that in mind, they could turn to pursue Zack Wheeler as a Plan B.
The Astros were rumored to have had interest in Wheeler at the trade deadline, but obviously pulled off the Zack Greinke trade instead. But with Wheeler now a free agent and an obvious hole in the rotation, there could be a fit here if Cole’s price tag becomes too much for Jim Crane to swallow.
Wheeler, 29, doesn’t have the same luster as Cole, but he also won’t have the same cost either. He missed all of the 2015 and 2016 seasons with injuries, rebounding to put together a pair of solid campaigns in 2018 and 2019. He’s made a total of 60 starts over the past two seasons, showing his injury woes appear to be behind him.
MLB Trade Rumors predicts Wheeler to land a five-year, $100 million contract, though they expect that to come from the Phillies. The $20 million a year average is hefty, but it’s much more palatable than the $35 million or so that Cole will get. Cole’s contract could also stretch to seven or eight years, making Wheeler much less of a financial gamble.
Fits the Profile
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Wheeler doesn’t have the same video game-esque numbers Cole has put up the past two years, but he fits the profile of the type of pitcher the Astros covet. His four-seam fastball averaged 96.8 mph in 2019 with a high spin rate. He also averaged high spin rates on his curveball and slider.
In 2018, Wheeler was in the top four percent in the league in average exit velocity and hard hit percentage. Those numbers regressed some in 2019, but there looks to be a distinct reason why, and it’s a reason the Astros can fix better than anyone.
Wheeler used his sinker nearly as much as his four-seamer in 2019, throwing more than twice as many sinkers as he did in 2018. At the same time, his sinker was by far his least effective pitch this season. Batters hit .298 off his sinker and slugged .488. This plays perfectly into the Astros hands.
The Houston coaching staff is known for getting pitchers to ditch sinkers and two-seam fastballs and rely more on four-seamers, especially up in the zone. Wheeler possesses a good four-seamer with strong velocity and spin rate, so just by replacing most of those sinkers with four-seamers, he would be set for significant improvement.
The Astros could also consolidate his repertoire. Wheeler throws six different pitches, though he all but abandoned his split finger in 2019. The team would probably have him rely mostly on his four-seamer, curve and slider, with a few changeups and the occasional splitter mixed in. The sinker would and probably should disappear.
It might not be realistic to expect Wheeler to replicate what Cole has done the past two years, but the Astros could clearly coach him into being a solid No. 2 starter behind Justin Verlander, slotting in right next to Greinke. And with a much more manageable financial commitment, there’s an argument to be made that adding Wheeler could pay off even more than bringing back Cole.