While many Cubs fans have pondered the potential of big-name free agent signings like Bryce Harper or Manny Machado in the 2019 offseason, it may be in the team’s best interest to reopen their pursuit of Mets starter Zack Wheeler.
After missing all of 2015 and 2016 due to complications surrounding his Tommy John surgery, New York Mets right-hander Zack Wheeler struggled to regain his form in 2017, posting a 5.21 ERA in 17 starts.
Just years removed from looking like an integral part of New York’s young staff, Wheeler was suddenly in a battle just to break into the rotation heading into Spring Training last February. The 28-year-old earned a place in the rotation, but his ERA has ballooned to 5.40 by the end of May.
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But something clicked in Wheeler, and he would go on to post a 2.53 ERA from June on, including a 9-1 record and 1.68 ERA after the All-Star Break. While likely NL Cy Young teammate Jacob deGrom was capturing headlines, Wheeler quietly established himself as one of the premier pitchers in all of baseball.
The Cubs made inquiries on both deGrom and Wheeler at the trade deadline, but the Mets told teams that they would keep their star pitchers in the hopes that the club would make a push toward contention in 2019. Indeed, New York posted a 38-30 record in the second half, providing hope for next season.
Still, Theo Epstein would be wise to keep a running dialogue with New York on the prospects of acquiring Wheeler. Such a deal is predicated on the Cubs potentially moving on from their young pieces – such as Ian Happ or Albert Almora - in the offseason.
On the surface, the Cubs rotation looks to have plenty of depth next season. Yu Darvish should be back in the mix after a full offseason, and southpaw Drew Smyly should be fully healthy by Opening Day as well. Not to mention, the Cubs are likely to pick up Cole Hamels‘ team option. But the staff is aging.
Hamels will be 35 in December, and Jon Lester will also turn 35 in January. Darvish will be 33 next summer. In fact, Kyle Hendricks will be the only member of the starting rotation under 30 by next summer.
Needless to say, the Cubs could use some young pitching.
Wheeler would be an ideal target. Not only did he post sterling second-half numbers and 8.8 K/9, but according to FanGraphs he also had positive pitch values for every pitch in his arsenal, including career-high values with the fastball and slider.
Additionally, Wheeler actually finished the season with a lower FIP (3.25) than ERA (3.31). Given the prowess of Chicago’s defense and the strength of his advanced metrics, Wheeler projects as a bona fide ace in the Cubs rotation.
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Of course, much of this is contingent on what kind of start the Mets get off to in 2019. But if Epstein is smart, he should immediately initiate talks with Alderson and ramp up the efforts to pursue Wheeler next season.