The Philadelphia Phillies have communicated to other teams that they are facing a financial crunch and are open to offers for their second-highest-paid player, starting pitcher Zack Wheeler, according to sources.
Slugger Bryce Harper is the team’s highest-paid player, but there is no indication yet that the Phillies will look to deal him off their books.
Wheeler is only one year into the five-year, $118 million deal he signed with the Phillies last winter, as Philadelphia looked to progress beyond a frustrating 81-81 season in 2019. Wheeler, 30, pitched well for the Phillies in the truncated 2020 season, posting a 2.92 ERA in 11 starts, but as with a lot of professional franchises, much has changed for the team following the onset of the global pandemic.
Following the summer of games played without fans in the stands, the Phillies recently became the latest team to execute front-office layoffs, reportedly letting go of 80 employees. The Phillies demoted general manager Matt Klentak in the first days of October, and since then, have been in a deliberate search for someone to oversee the team’s baseball operations department. Whoever move into that job — former Diamondbacks GM Josh Byrnes is among the names being discussed — may well be asked to make moves that are unpopular with fans, much in the way that Chaim Bloom did in Boston. Bloom’s first major move was the trade of perennial All-Star Mookie Betts.
Wheeler doesn’t have the long history with the Phillies that Betts did with the Red Sox, but the Phillies’ marketing of the starting pitcher will be seen by the fan base as a sign the team is in retreat at a time when other teams in the division are surging. The Braves have won the NL East the last three seasons, and they’ve already completed a lot of their winter work by quickly signing free agents pitchers Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton. The Mets signed top reliever Trevor May, are in talks with catcher James McCann, and are expected to pursue outfielder George Springer and/or Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer. The Marlins made the playoffs last season. The Nationals won the World Series in MLB’s last full season, in 2019.
The Phillies, on the other hand, have not been in the playoffs since 2011, the franchise’s last season with a winning record. Wheeler was signed to pair with Aaron Nola as stars at the front of the Philadelphia rotation, and last spring, there was also an expectation that the Phillies would work to re-sign J.T. Realmuto, widely regarded as the better catcher in the game.
But Wheeler is now up for auction in the trade market and Realmuto is a free agent. It’s unclear whether the Phillies might use any salary savings from a Wheeler trade in an attempt to free up money to sign Realmuto, but no matter what happens, there will be gaping holes in the roster. The Phillies had an historically bad bullpen last year; a trade of Wheeler would create need; and the departure of Realmuto would be devastating to the every day lineup.
Harper has been vocal in his hope that the Phillies should re-sign Realmuto. Next year, Harper will be in Year 3 of a 13-year, $330 million deal.
With a lot of the best starting pitchers already off the board, there undoubtedly will be interest in Wheeler — but it may be that other clubs could ask the Phillies to kick in some money to offset a deal that was signed before the pandemic, or be measured in prospect offers. The Blue Jays, Angels and Mets are among the teams looking for starting pitching.