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Wheeler’s deal proves MLB teams will spend big on quality – not average – players

Zach Wheeler

(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

It was hilarious last season listening to the crybabies representing the Major League Baseball Players Association bitching and moaning about the lack of early movement in the free agent market.There were cries of collusion. There were charges team owners were cheating their fan bases by not investing the kind of money the union felt was appropriate to be competitive.

Where were the complaints late in the winter when Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout succeeded each other in signing the richest deals in MLB history?

You know why the owners were a little hesitant to spend the money last season? It was because they knew the free agent class wasn’t deserving of it. It had nothing to with squeezing the players, who have no problem squeezing every last penny in contract negotiations.

It was about financial responsibility.

But here we are, six weeks after the World Series, and this free agent season is already proving to be more lucrative  because the owners figure these guys are worth the cash.

Yasmani Grandal got $73 million from the White Sox. Mike Moustakas received $64 million from the Reds. Cole Hamels got a one-year, $18 million deal from the Braves. But on Wednesday, some real money got tossed around.

In a class where Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg were considered the top pitchers available, Zach Wheeler commanded a lot of interest because teams felt they could land him at a much more reasonable price.

And it was the Phillies who reeled him in with a five-year, $118 million deal that adds depth and potentially formidable talent to their thinning starting rotation.

For Phillies, the team that gave Harper $330 million, investing this kind of money is a pitcher is a new and likely scary experience.

Like most teams, especially those married to metrics, one of the golden rules is never pay a pitcher for what he’s done in the past. You assign value based on what you suspect they can do in the future. For this reason, Wheeler is a calculated risk. Who knows really what he’ll produce?

A little over two years ago, Phillies president Andy MacPhail talked about the process of deciding what constituted a worthy investment.

“There are times when you’re going to have to dive into that pool and just take a risk,” MacPhail said. But it’s not my favorite place to be. … There is going to be a time when we have to dive in. You’re going to make that judgment based on, really, what’s around your club. You’re just going to have to get used to the fact there might be a year or two at the end of his contract you’re not getting the full performance out of it.”

Wheeler is just the fifth player to sign a contract worth at least $100 million with the Phillies – Ryan Howard, Cliff Lee, Hamels and Harper. But the Phillies agreed with the premise that only Cole and Strasburg were superior talents and they took a leap based on his potential to be a front-end starter. After all, Wheeler is only 29 years old.

Zach Wheeler

(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Wheeler’s fastball and slider are in the same stratosphere as two-time Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom, his former teammate with the Mets. Wheeler just hasn’t learned to harness them as well.

The Phillies had a chance to leap last year when lefthander Patrick Corbin hit the market, but they passed, allowing him to sign with NL East rival Washington. They ended up giving Wheeler a deal that’s average annual value ($23.6 million) actually exceeds what the Nats gave Corbin.

According to MLB analytics, Wheeler’s hard-hit percentage (28.3) ranked fourth lowest among starting pitchers. DeGrom’s was 28.2 percent. Wheeler also allowed less than one home run per nine innings and proved his competency in home run happy Citizens Bank Park – the home of the Phillies –  by posting a 3.27 ERA and 0.98 WHIP in 44 innings.

“I’m sad to see Wheeler leave the Mets and to a divisional competitor,” Mets starter Noah Syndergaard told The New York Post. “But at the same time I am happy to see him get a fat paycheck. He is an elite pitcher.”

Over the last two seasons, Wheeler was 23-15 with a 3.55 ERA after recovering from a torn ulnar collateral ligament that required Tommy John surgery and sidelined him for two seasons (2015-16).

“He’s a great pitcher, but guess what, this whole division is stacked with pitchers,” Mets outfielder Brandon Nimmo told the Post. “Last year it was Strasburg and [Max] Scherzer, and nobody even mentioned that the Marlins have a great pitching staff and that young core that they have got, so it’s just going to be tough day in and day out, so our offense is going to have to be up for the challenge.”

This is precisely the reason the Phillies signed Wheeler, why teams offer pitchers the kind of money they often do. They are betting on the guy’s ability, even if that means betting against the odds he’s actually worth it.

The MLBPA has nothing to complain about this season.