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Mets: What kind of fat contract could Zack Wheeler land next winter?

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No free agent next winter may be more important to the New York Mets future than Zack Wheeler. Unfortunately, it could take a lot of dough to keep him beyond 2019.

Next offseason may not be as busy as this one, but it will present the New York Mets with numerous challenges and opportunities.

On the surface, it’s not quite as star-studded as this winter’s free agent stock, but come this time next year we’ll likely be chattering about names like Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, Xander Bogaerts, and Chris Sale–to name a few.

However, it’s quite possible that the Mets will only be linked to a name of their own–Zack Wheeler. Wheeler becomes a free agent after next season.

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Next winter will mark unchartered territory for the Mets; Wheeler is the first of the “young” Mets to hit the open market, one year before Jacob deGrom, two before Steven Matz, Michael Conforto, and Noah Syndergaard.

Now seems an appropriate time to begin asking the question; how much money will the Mets need to pay Wheeler to keep him in Queens?

To answer this, we must look to the future and the past. Wheeler’s 2018–the second half in particular–was a breakthrough. Through the arbitration process, Wheeler’s 2019 salary was ruled to be $5,975,000, a $4M jump from last year. He earned every penny.

Last year’s second-half surge brought Wheeler the most recognition of his career, but what will happen if 2019 is a repeat (or improvement) of his success or a step backward?

Projecting 2019

Pitchers are difficult to predict, and Wheeler’s injury history makes him no different. However, it’s clear that he made significant changes last season in order to up his game. His fastball, changeup, and slider velocities all increased. His WHIP shrank from 1.59 in 2017 to 1.12 in 2018. He kept contact in the ballpark better than anyone except his teammate, Jacob deGrom, allowing just 3 home runs in his last 75 innings of the season.

Despite a pedestrian 4.44 ERA in the first half of the 2018 campaign, Wheeler’s 1.68 ERA in his final 11 starts vaulted him to the top of many N.L. pitcher leaderboards and lowered his hard-contact percentage to 24.8%, by far a career best.

Steamer Projections predicts Wheeler to finish 2019 with 29 starts, a 3.85 ERA, 171 IP, 172 K, 57 BB, and 2.7 WAR. The 3.85 ERA would be Wheeler’s second-highest ERA in a season after 2017’s abysmal 5.21 mark over 86 innings. Steamer suggests that Wheeler will regress slightly to his career averages, but still at 28 years old and fewer than 600 major league innings under his belt, Wheeler could produce a 2019 way off those projections–in either direction.

The Magic Number

Wheeler’s projection can be compared to a handful of contemporary pitcher seasons, but to keep things simple let’s look at how top free agent pitchers performed in their contract year:

  • Patrick Corbin, 2018: 200 IP, 3.15 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 30.8 K%, 4.6 bWAR
  • Yu Darvish, 2017: 186.2 IP, 3.86 ERA, 1.163 WHIP, 27.3 K%, 3.8 bWAR
  • Johnny Cueto, 2015: 212 IP, 3.44 ERA, 1.132 WHIP, 20.3 K%, 4.0 bWAR
  • Zack Greinke, 2015: 222.2 IP, 1.66 ERA, 0.844 WHIP, 23.7 K%, 9.1 bWAR
  • Max Scherzer, 2014: 220.1 IP, 3.15 ERA, 1.175 WHIP, 27.9 K%, 5.7 bWAR

Darvish’s 2017 might be the most comparable to Wheeler’s 2018. Darvish signed a 6 year, $126 million deal with the Cubs last offseason, only to throw 40 innings this past season with a 4.95 ERA. Certainly, Chicago must feel worried about Darvish’s long term health–something Wheeler’s suitors might also fear as they deliberate a contract for him.

Wheeler missed both 2015 and 2016 due to Tommy John surgery and then a flexor strain in his right arm. He’s never thrown more than 186 innings in one season, but Wheeler’s bounce-back year, consistent K-rate, and ability to induce soft contact and keep the ball in the park will get the attention of competing GMs.

The “magic number” for Wheeler definitely depends on his 2019 output and his health. If Wheeler can lower his ERA from last year’s 3.31 to near Corbin’s 3.15, a similar deal to Darvish’s 6y/126mil and Corbin’s 6y/140mil isn’t out of the question. While Chris Sale (31) and Gerrit Cole (29) should command more lucrative deals if Wheeler continues to improve he’ll probably be grouped with them in the elite free agent starter umbrella.

For the Mets to keep Wheeler, they will likely have to give him at least a four-year deal–definitely, five should he significantly build upon his 2018. Would Wheeler bite on a five-year deal worth $100 million? Would he prefer a potential opt out after a certain season? Would he be willing to take a hometown discount to play for the Braves, the team he grew up closest to?

Next. Best and worst case scenarios for Zack Wheeler in 2019

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Either way, the Mets will have competition. And they may have to pay up in the end if they want to keep Wheeler around.

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