Is Twins starting pitching target Zack Wheeler close to signing elsewhere?

Major League Baseball’s supposed “hot stove” of offseason activity has more closely resembled a lukewarm cup of leftover tea in recent years, but there are indications that some major movement could be coming soon.

ESPN’s Buster Olney writes that “agents¬†report that early in this offseason, the bidding has generally been much more aggressive, particularly in the starting pitching market.”

In the midst of that same report, and playing off the idea of the aggressive pursuit of starting pitching, comes some disappointing news if you are a Twins fan hoping the team would be in on the bidding for free agent pitcher Zack Wheeler.

Olney (and the equally plugged-in Ken Rosenthal) report that the market for Wheeler is heating up and that the Phillies are the frontrunners at this point — “seen by sources as the most potent bidders,” Olney writes.

Both reports also mention the Reds and White Sox as suitors, while Olney has the Rangers in the mix and Rosenthal has the Angels.

The Twins are not mentioned in either report. That doesn’t mean the market won’t change, and conversely there are good reasons for the Twins to shy away from pursuing him.

The price tag reportedly is at least 5 years and $100 million, with talk of a sixth year. He will also cost a team draft pick compensation after turning down the Mets’ $18 million qualifying offer (the same offer that Twins starter Jake Odorizzi accepted). And while Wheeler was durable and effective the last two seasons, he missed all of 2015 and 2016 recovering from Tommy John surgery. Durability concerns are scary when offering a starting pitcher such a long-term deal.

But Wheeler, 29, is a hard thrower who would immediately upgrade the Twins rotation and give them a strong proven top three along with Odorizzi and Berrios in 2020. He averaged a strikeout per inning in 2019 and had a 2.66 ERA over the final two months. He could be a candidate for a breakthrough, and his floor is already pretty high.

If the offseason starting pitching market is divided into tiers, the 1A and 1B are Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg — two aces who figure to command astronomical salaries and haven’t been linked to the Twins.

Wheeler might be at the top of the heap of the next group (which also includes the likes of Madison Bumgarner and¬†Hyun-Jin Ryu). If Wheeler signs in the next week — say, by the end of the Winter Meetings that start Sunday in San Diego — and the Twins aren’t linked to him at all, it could be viewed as a pretty tepid start to the offseason for a team coming off 101 wins that has money to spend and rotation holes to fill.

Then again, teams that make big (and early) free agent splashes often end up living with regret while teams that let the market settle in are often rewarded. We’ll see where Wheeler winds up — and where the Twins wind up heading into spring training.

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