The World Series is almost here! The Philadelphia Phillies and the Houston Astros will be squaring off on Friday night. Philadelphia’s offense led the way to an NL pennant, but they also have been aided with some great starting pitching in big games from their ace, Zack Wheeler.
Wheeler was the top starting pitcher on the market in the 2019 offseason with a 3.77 ERA with 8.7 K/9 and a 1.29 WHIP in 749.1 innings over five seasons with the New York Mets. Since signing with the Phillies, he has taken his production to another level. Wheeler, 32, has a 2.82 ERA with 9.5 K/9 and a 1.05 WHIP in 437.1 innings over three seasons in Philadelphia. That’s impressive, but in Wheeler’s first postseason run, he has a 1.78 ERA and a 2.36 FIP over 25.1 innings.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Twins are trying to get back into the postseason. Starting pitching was a struggle for the 2022 squad. Derek Falvey and Thad Levine have been unable to land a bona fide ace since taking over in 2016. José Berríos, Kenta Maeda, and Joe Ryan have all produced excellent seasons. But most fans can see a gap between them and a “true No. 1” starter.
But in December 2019, the Twins were one of the teams running to sign Wheeler. At the time, Wheeler reportedly had an offer from the Twins similar to the 5-year, $118 million deal he would ink with the Phillies. But Wheeler’s wife is originally from the Philadelphia area, which reportedly was the reason that put the Phillies over the top.
Wheeler’s decision seems justified now. The Phillies are in the playoffs, while the Twins have missed the postseason for two years in a row. Let’s suspend reality for a second, though. What would the Twins have looked like if Wheeler decided to be the ace on the mound at Target Field?
By coming to Minnesota, Wheeler would have been a bold move. But it also would have been groundbreaking for the franchise. The Twins aren’t known as a pitching destination, even if former pitching coach Wes Johnson probably would have enjoyed working with a pitcher as talented as Wheeler. Maybe he’d have made his mid-90s fastball a little bit faster or had him use the slider a little more. No matter what ideas Johnson had for Wheeler, it wouldn’t have mattered as long as Wheeler stayed healthy.
When you look at some of Wheeler’s underlying numbers from his time in New York and Philadelphia, they all look relatively the same. His other pitches’ spin rate and fastball velocity remain largely the same even after he signed with the Phillies. While his ERA and strikeout rate have bumped up in Philly, it wasn’t because he made any major changes to his game.
The issue in New York was that Wheeler couldn’t stay healthy. He missed all of 2015 and 2016 with elbow issues that led to Tommy John Surgery. Arm fatigue and other nagging injuries ruined his 2017 campaign. However, Wheeler posted back-to-back 180-plus-innings seasons in 2018 and 2019.
The Wheeler everyone is seeing now has been there all along. He just had to get fully healthy from the injuries that set back the early seasons of his career. All the Twins would have had to do was just sit back and watch their ace go to work in the prime years of his career.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the contract Wheeler has now would be the same if he were in Minnesota. The splash in free agency dramatically impacts how the Twins approached that offseason. The Twins are less likely to sign Josh Donaldson because he was Plan B after they couldn’t land pitching. That means Miguel Sanó probably stays put at third base either, or it may have delayed his move to first at least.
An ace in tow makes the Twins feel more confident in their staff going into the season after pairing Wheeler and Berríos. No trade for Maeda means the Twins hang on to Brusdar Graterol. For context, the 2020 Dodgers won the World Series with Graterol as a key part of the bullpen in a similar role that Jhoan Durán played for the Twins this season.
The 2020 Twins were already loaded in the pitching department. It’s hard to imagine that playoff series going any differently because the pitching wasn’t the issue that season. Instead, it was an offense that only scored one run in games that postseason. In 2021, Minnesota’s implosion seemed likely whether Wheeler was on the roster. Therefore, they likely trade Berríos, with Wheeler manning the top of the rotation.
Like with the Phillies, Wheeler’s presence on the 2022 team would have made the most impact in terms of winning games. The effect of Wheeler’s contract would likely have prevented the Twins from signing Carlos Correa. Correa’s absence creates a fast track for Royce Lewis to join the Twins, even if it might not have been right away. That means he never plays in center field and tears his ACL in late May. They probably would have still traded for Sonny Gray before the season. It’s a logical step to beef up the pitching core, slotting Gray in the middle of the rotation with Joe Ryan.
That’s important because while the Twins were crashing during the second half of the 2022 season, some of the extra arms would have been huge. Wheeler would have given the Twins an ace to right the ship, while Durán and Graterol would have aided the team with more support in the back end of the bullpen.
Plus, that means the Twins don’t trade for Tyler Mahle, and they could have focused their trade capital in other areas. Adding an impact catcher or outfield bat could have helped the Twins down the stretch. Does Wheeler’s presence guarantee the 2022 Twins make the postseason? Probably not alone. At the same time, he would have kept this team in contention. Even if Wheeler couldn’t pull the Twins over the top, having a true ace under contract would give the franchise a significant building block when filling out the rest of the roster.
With the benefit of hindsight, Zack Wheeler made the right choice to pitch for Philadelphia. The Twins are still searching for a true No. 1 starting pitcher to lead their rotation. As the Phillies get ready for game one of the World Series, with Wheeler likely leading them out on the mound in Game 1, I can’t help but think how different the Twins would look with him leading the rotation.