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Milwaukee Brewers trade targets: Zack Wheeler

He has underperformed his ace-like peripheral numbers this year.

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New York Mets v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images

The Milwaukee Brewers are coming off of an uneven month of June, posting a .500 record of 13-13 over 26 games, and so far that play has carried into early July. The team has dropped two of their first three games to the Reds, but thanks to the similarly inept level of play by their rivals 90 miles or so to the south, our Cream City Nine remains atop the National League Central standings. Milwaukee’s starting rotation posted a 5.87 ERA in June, worst on the Senior Circuit, and that remains the most obvious area that could use an external upgrade before the trade deadline.

As we discussed previously in the Madison Bumgarner trade target post, it will be tough for David Stearns and company to put together a package for the type of “controllable ace” that every team covets. Keston Hiura is thought to be untouchable, and beyond him, the farm system — while filled with interesting players — lacks for the type of high-quality prospect that could headline that sort of deal. That leaves Slingin’ Stearns to explore the rental market or look at potential upside plays, guys they think they can bring into the organization and ‘fix.’

One hurler who could on this year’s trade market who could fit both descriptions is right-hander Zack Wheeler of the New York Mets.

Wheeler’s name has been connected to Milwaukee at various points for going on five years now. He was supposed to be the prize of the original Carlos Gomez trade orchestrated by Doug Melvin back in 2015, one that would have brought a rehabbing Wheeler and Wilmer Flores to Milwaukee but was scuttled by medical concerns on New York’s end. Gomez ended up going to Houston with Mike Fiers the next day in a trade that has ended up working out handsomely for the Brewers. Once Wheeler was healthy again after Tommy John surgery and pitching effectively for the Metropolitans, he became a target of the Stearns regime last summer as his club charged towards a playoff berth. The Mets ultimately held on to Wheeler, but that didn’t stop the Brewers from checking in on him again once the winter rolled around. According to a recent post from Mark Carig of The Athletic, the Brewers have “been enamored with Wheeler’s upside as recently as this past offseason.”

Wheeler was excellent during the first two years of his big league career, but 2018 represented a post-surgery re-breakout of sorts. He made 29 starts and worked 182.1 innings while posting a stellar 3.31 ERA, with run-estimators like FIP- (81) and especially DRA- (67) even more impressed with his work. A big part of Wheeler’s success was due to abandoning his sinker and using his four-seamer as his exclusive fastball; only four qualified starters in baseball last year generated more value with that pitch than Wheeler’s +22.7 weighted four-seam runs above average. He posted a career-high 10.7% swinging-strike rate and was the best qualified starter in the game in terms of limiting hard contact (24.8%).

So far this season, Wheeler has worked to a far less-impressive earned run average of 4.42 across 18 starts and 114.0 innings. Peripherally, though, there hasn’t been much of a difference in the level of actual on-mound performance this year versus Wheeler’s dominance in 2018. His fastball velocity is firmer than ever, with his 97.2 MPH average this season ranking behind only teammate Noah Syndergaard among MLB starters. His 10.5% swinging strike rate is right in-line with last year, and his 9.71 K/9 rate would represent a new career-best. He’s also been stingier with free passes than he has ever been previously, issuing only 2.53 BB/9. Hard contact is up league-wide in a big way this season, and though Wheeler has been no exception to that rule, his 32.7% rate of hard contact allowed still ranks among the top-10 lowest among qualified pitchers in 2019. Also like the rest of baseball, Wheeler is allowing more home runs this season thanks to the juiced ball, but his 1.18 HR/9 mark is still well below the league-average.

While Wheeler’s earned run average translates to a below-average 107 ERA-, Deserved Run Average thinks that his actual performance when toeing the slab is even better than last season. Wheeler owns a 3.00 DRA and a DRA- of 62, ranking among the top-15 pitchers in all of baseball. For comparison’s sake, DRA says he has been about on-par with the level of production turned in by Brandon Woodruff (56 DRA-), who has been hailed by some as an emerging front-of-the-rotation force this season.

The Mets are 2-8 across their last 10 games and are mired in fourth place in the NL East, 12.0 games back of the Braves at 39-48. There is disarray in the locker room and consternation in the front office, with new GM Brodie Van Wagenen unlikely to be able to convince the Wilpon’s to undertake a full-scale rebuild. That almost surely means trying to deal his obvious trade candidates for the best packages that he can find, and no one on the roster makes more sense to sell than Zack Wheeler, who is owed only the balance of a $5.975 mil salary this year before departing as a free agent. His under-performance this season and the fact that he’s a true rental will likely weigh down his ultimate trade value, but his peripherals say that maybe with a better defense behind him and a little more favorable luck, he can be a true difference-maker down the stretch for a contender’s starting rotation. The cross-town Yankees have already expressed interest, but according to Carig, we should expect teams Atlanta and our Brewers to also make a strong run for the 29 year old’s services.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus