Who remembers when the Philadelphia Phillies had one of the best starting pitching rotations in Major League Baseball history?

With a rotation that featured Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels the Phillies rolled out one of the best one-through-three trios that baseball has ever seen. The team certainly benefited from their individual and collective performances at various times.

Winning the World Series in 2008. Returning to the Fall Classic in 2009. Reaching the NLCS in 2010. Accumulating a franchise-record 102 regular season wins in winning a fifth straight NL East crown in 2011. Fans thought the Phillies would continue to place near the top of the National League for years after that as well.

In 2012, injuries and age caught up to that starting rotation and some of the pitchers began to break down. Halladay hit the disabled list in May 2012 and struggled to regain his health, ultimately retiring after the 2013 season. Lee pitched well in 2012 and 2013, but landed on the disabled list himself in 2014 and would miss the 2015 season before the Phillies declined a team option on his contract.

With the breakdown of these two stalwarts, the Phillies broke down as a team, tumbling in the standings. Hamels pitched for the Phillies until the trade deadline in 2015. By the time he was finally traded that golden era for the Phillies had already come to an end. The realization of a necessary rebuild was on the horizon. 

During that long rebuilding process the Phillies front office drafted Aaron Nola in 2014. They made trades to acquire pitching prospects such as Zach Eflin, Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez, and Jake Thompson. Management touted that they had built talented prospect depth with these five pitchers.

But to date, only Nola has remained productive for the big-league rotation. Since 2012, only three Phillies pitchers have posted a WAR mark of 4 or better: Hamels twice, Lee twice, and Nola twice. After watching Eflin, Pivetta, and Velasquez struggle in 2018 and 2019, fans clamored for the front office to add some proven talent to the starting rotation.

The 2019 off-season seemed the perfect time to add to the starting rotation, with the ultimate free agent prize being elite right-hander Gerrit Cole. The former number one overall pick in the 2011 MLB Draft, Cole was coming off two dominant seasons with the Houston Astros.

There was too much competition for Cole, and he ultimately landed where many predicted, with the New York Yankees. However, there was another pitcher that the Phillies had set their sights on. Another righty with whom they were quite familiar and who has often been compared to Cole.

Zack Wheeler agreed to a five-year, $118 million contract with the Phillies on December 4, 2019. With that signing the Phillies forfeited their second pick in the upcoming MLB Draft to the division rival New York Mets.

Once a top pick in his own right, number six overall in 2009 by the San Francisco Giants, Wheeler landed with the Metropolitans in a 2011 deal that saw Carlos Beltran head to the Bay Area.

On arrival in the Big Apple, Wheeler immediately became one of the Mets and top prospects. Following two outstanding seasons in the minor leagues, Wheeler was named MLB’s sixt- best overall prospect heading into 2013. He would then make his Major League debut later that summer.

Despite that ranking near the top of prospect lists, Wheeler struggled with consistency early in his big-league career. And as part of a deep and talented starting rotation in New York, Wheeler often found himself trailing teammates Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Noah Syndergaard when it came to recognition.

Aside from that inconsistency he also struggled to remain healthy. Heading into the 2015 season, Wheeler tore his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) and required Tommy John surgery. He would subsequently miss the entire 2015 season as the Mets advanced all the way to the World Series, and made just one start at High-A in the 2016 season.

Wheeler could only watch as his rotation mates won accolades, gained playoff experience, and became stalwarts of the Mets rotation. After finally returning in 2017, Wheeler continued to struggle with consistency, and was briefly sent down to the minors in 2018.

However, he would soon return and end up finishing out the second half of that 2018 season on fire, producing a 9-1 record, 1.68 ERA, and 0.81 WHIP. It appeared that as his health and confidence returned, Wheeler had finally turned the corner.

Last season was huge for Wheeler, who knew he had to perform if he was going to get a big contract, whether through an extension with the Mets or elsewhere via free agency. Following a short July stint on the Injured List due to shoulder fatigue, Wheeler revealed some new mechanics which showcased a lower release point.

The Mets finished with the second-best record in the National League after the MLB All-Star break, trailing only the Los Angeles Dodgers. Wheeler and the pitching staff were a big part of that surge. Wheeler would 5-2 with a 2.83 ERA and a 1.231 WHIP in the second half  with a K/9 rate of 7.7 according to Baseball-Reference. The Mets would push past the Phillies in the standings to finish in third place in the division.

For the past two off-seasons the Phillies have been at least rumored to have been in on every big-name free agent pitcher available, including Cole, Patrick Corbin, J.A. Happ, Stephen Strasburg, and Wheeler. By finally landing one in Wheeler, the Phillies feel as though they got a pitcher that is on the cusp of taking the next step in his career. And there are legitimate reasons to believe that could happen.

According to Baseball-Reference, Wheeler ranked as the 19th most valuable pitcher in baseball over the last two seasons. When examining his Baseball Savant page, Wheeler’s velocity and movement of pitches compares favorably to Cole, Nathan Eovaldi, and Brandon Woodruff.

The Phillies are further banking on the idea that pairing Wheeler with new pitching coach Bryan Price, as well as his being another year removed from the TJ surgery and in overall good health, will push Wheeler’s game to that next level.

Will that actually happen? Since signing with the Phillies in December, Wheeler has said all the right things to make the team and fans believe he can. During his introductory press conference back in mid-December, Wheeler was quoted by Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia: “I think there’s another step that I can take. Seeing guys like Gerrit Cole. He has a lot of the same stuff I have repertoire-wise and I think he figured it out and took that next step and that’s also where I want to go.

So, time will tell. Wheeler did impress in his final Grapefruit League start down at spring training in Florida before the postponement of play due to the COVID19 pandemic. He struck out six batters over four innings of work that day against the Minnesota Twins commenting afterwards “If they need me, whenever they need me, I’ll be ready,” per Matt Breen at The Inquirer.

For the Phillies to make it back to the postseason for the first time since 2011 they will need Wheeler to pair with Nola, forming the kind of consistently strong onetwo punch not seen on the mound in a Phillies uniform since Hamels and Lee led the 2013 rotation.

Wheeler knows what he needs to do to take the next step. The front office is giving him all the help he needs to reach his full potential. How great would it be to have two pitchers on the staff once again considered in Cy Young Award conversation at the end of the year? If that happens, the Phillies are far more likely to make the 2020 MLB playoffs.

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