The 2019 MLB free agent class will go down in history with a great deal of star pitching and many teams with obvious needs on the mound. Most eyes are on Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg and Madison Bumgarner – two World Series MVPs and a total of three generational aces.
However, Cole is heavily favoured to sign with his hometown Los Angeles Angels, while Strasburg is still projected by many to return to the Nationals after contributing to the franchise’s greatest moment in the end of October. That makes the battle for FA pitchers such as Bumgarner and Zack Wheeler even more intriguing due to their lower cost and smaller interest by their former teams, the Giants and the Mets.
Wheeler, who posted 11-8 record with 3.96 ERA this season, isn’t the difference maker Cole and Strasburg are. He is, though, a pretty good pitcher that most teams close to contention can use to either find a way to fix their pitching issues or complete an impressive rotation.
Today we evaluate the five ballclubs that should chase Zack Wheeler’s signing, and to even be a little desperate in the process.
Los Angeles Angels
The Anaheim-based team is the heavy favourite to land AL Cy Young contender Gerrit Cole, a Newport Beach native, listed at +300 (equal to 3/1) in SportsLine’s book. That’s expected to put an end to the mediocrity that’s surrounded LA starting pitching ever since they drafted the best player on the planet, Mike Trout, hence what has kept them from achieving.
Last year it didn’t get better, and losing Tyler Skaggs and Felix Pena for the second half didn’t help. The Angels had the 6th-worst pitching ERA in the league at 5.12. Cole alone isn’t going to cut it – they need more than that. They surely can’t land BOTH Cole and Strasburg, but they are more than capable of affording Zack Wheeler and then go on to add some pieces to their 10th-worst bullpen.
A step towards fixing their pitching altogether is having their starters pitch more innings. In 2019, Angels relievers threw second-most innings in the league only to the Tampa Bay Rays. Wheeler, meanwhile, has gone over 185 innings pitched in three of his last four campaigns.
The Angels and the Twins are easily the two teams that most need to desperately improve their production on the mound in order for the team to show its full potential. The difference is that Minnesota is a playoff team with a record-breaking batting line-up.
Minnesota’s pitching was better than anybody bears to give them credit for. The Twins had the 11th-best starting rotation with 4.19. That’s important to a grand total of no one now that aces Jake Oddorizi, Kyle Gibson and Michael Pineda.
The Twins find themselves in a very good payroll situation. Minnesota is 24th in total payroll ($72,383,333) and a recent Minnesota Star-Tribune article reporting that the Twins are willing to re-sign one of the three starting pitchers and spend about $50 million of other free agents suggest that a player in his range is the most likely target for GM Thad Levine.
They aren’t going to go after Cole or Strasburg because that wouldn’t allow them to sign another free agent ace. The only returning starter from 2019 remains 14-win Jose Berrios.
New York’s starting pitching registered a substantial improvement in the postseason but they still need to add a good pitcher. Even if we consider Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton as players who have returned to having consistently good outings, the Yankees rotation isn’t very deep with JA Happ and Jordan Montgomery.
With their field pretty much settled, and with them having the 9th-best bullpen ERA and the most runs scored, their main priority will be the rotation. It’s going to be a make-or-break offseason for GM Brian Cashman as the rotation’s performance will probably end up deciding the Yankees’ fate in 2020 as well as his future with the organisation.
Wheeler won’t be Cashman’s top target as they’ve already had their eyes set on going all in on Gerrit Cole. The former Met is reported as a rebound option for the Yankees but last year’s interest that came from Bronx is an encouraging sign that might see Wheeler stay in NY, this time in stripes.
In Mike Minor’s final year, the Rangers have a final chance to return to postseason contention. Last season Texas had a solid first half but slipped after the All-Star break, losing 40 of 72 games. Minor and Lance Lynn provided a good top of the Rangers’ rotation but the 4.73 ERA speaks volumes of how unbalanced it is.
The Rangers are probably seeing another set of problems in their bullpen, which was fifth-worst in the American League, and the loss of top hitter Hunter Pence, but three very solid aces should provide a spark and become a driving force in Texas’ efforts to return to the postseason for the first time since 2016.
The interest towards Pence is going to keep them from having any kind of chance of getting him back but signing Wheeler shouldn’t exclude the prospect of signing a couple of solid hitters such as Nicholas Castellanos and Corey Dickerson, as well as that of Shin-Soo Choo having a comeback campaign to fill in for Pence at DH.
Last year the Rockies had the single worst pitching staff in the National League – by far. Colorado finished the year with 5.87 starters ERA and, as long as it seems like Kyle Freeland and Jeff Hoffman aren’t going to be a consistent part of the rotation, the Rox better find some assurance on the mound.
German Marquez recorded a 12-4 record despite finishing the year with 5.59 ERA after the ASG. It’s no secret that Colorado is the team that’s most desperate for pitching upgrades and, because their presence hasn’t been very active among MLB free agency rumors, Wheeler, 14th in the NL in strikeouts, is a perfect fit for the Rockies and Coors Field.
The Rockies certainly have a winning line-up at the plate but, while they waste it with awful pitching, time’s running out for Colorado to make a run.