Angels general manager Billy Eppler provides more details on the team’s pursuit of free agent Zack Wheeler last offseason.
In search of starting pitching during the offseason, the Los Angeles Angels set their eyes on all of the top prizes, including local product Gerrit Cole and Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg. Failing to reach an agreement with either one, there were rumors of the Angels pursuing former Met Zack Wheeler who ended up signing a five-year, $118 million deal with the Phillies.
In a virtual Q&A with fans earlier this month, Angels general manager Billy Eppler elaborated on the team’s interest in Wheeler.
“A couple days before Thanksgiving, [Joe] Maddon, myself and [John] Carpino got on a plane and flew to Atlanta to meet with Zack Wheeler,” Eppler said in a response to a fan question transcribed by the OC Register. “We pursued Wheeler pretty aggressively. Ultimately he and his wife expressed a desire to remain a little closer to the East Coast.”
Wheeler is from the state of Georgia where he was named 2009 Gatorade High School Player of the Year.
The right-hander is coming off two strong seasons in New York after missing all of 2015, 2016, and parts of 2017 while recovering from Tommy John surgery and arm issues. He is 23-15 since 2018, with a 3.65 ERA, 8.9 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, and 43.7 percent ground ball rate. Despite his early injury history, he made 60 starts over the past two seasons in New York leading up to the Phillies signing him to a nine-figure deal.
The Angels ultimately spent their free agent cash on Silver Slugger Anthony Rendon. They then shopped in the bargain basement to add depth to their rotation, acquiring Dylan Bundy and Matt Andriese, and signing Julio Teheran. They are hoping that with a healthy Shohei Ohtani and Griffin Canning, they can offset top of the rotation flash for back of the rotation depth.
Manager Joe Maddon recently indicated he wanted to use a six-man rotation this season even before the coronavirus pandemic has made it where any 2020 season will likely require an extra slot in the rotation due to the possible compressed nature of the schedule.
While Wheeler would have given the Angels one more arm to create a legitimate top half of the rotation with Ohtani and Heaney, it still would have been a gamble investing over $100 million on a pitcher who is very good, but not great, and carries injury risk.
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In the end, Wheeler might have saved the Angels from a high-risk contract.