Zack Wheeler, one of the coveted starting pitchers on the free agent market, agreed to a five-year contract worth $118 million from the Phillies on Wednesday.
The Twins targeted Wheeler and, according to sources with knowledge of negotiations, offered a five-year deal worth $100 million.
Wheeler would have combined with righthanders Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi, who were both named to the All-Star team last season, to give the Twins a strong top of the rotation. The contract would have been the richest free-agent deal ever by the Twins.
Wheeler had positive conversations with Twins manager Rocco Baldelli, who attempted to recruit the veteran to the club. As much as Wheeler hit it off with Baldelli, Wheeler’s fiancée is from New Jersey, which played a factor, a major league source confirmed.
The 29-year-old Wheeler, a righthander, was 11-8 with a 3.96 ERA for the Mets last season.
The Twins now will move on with their list of candidates, which includes lefthander Madison Bumgarner.
Bumgarner, 30, was 9-9 with a 3.90 ERA last season for San Francisco, in what was a bounce back season. After pitching fewer than 130 inning in each of the previous two seasons, Bumgarner made 34 starts and threw 207⅔ innings for the Giants. Factor in his 8-3 record and 2.11 ERA in the postseason, and he appears to be just what the Twins need as they look to repeat as American League Central division champions.
But with Wheeler getting more than $23 million a year and Cole Hamels signing a one-year deal worth $18 million with Atlanta — after posting a 5.79 ERA during the second half of his season in Texas — the cost for quality free agent starting pitching is far from cheap. Bumgarner could seek a deal worth $100 million as well.
Derek Falvey, the Twins president of baseball operations, stated after the season ended that the goal was to add “impact starting pitching” to a rotation that sputtered late in the regular season and into the postseason. The only unrealistic targets appear to be righthanders Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, both of whom could land more lucrative deals. The Twins have been in touch with most of the other free agent pitchers.
The Twins need at least two starting pitchers to go with Berrios and Odorizzi. Martin Perez struggled and failed to make the postseason roster. Michael Pineda violated the league’s drug policy and was suspended. Kyle Gibson also struggled as he battled intestinal problems and has signed with the Rangers. The club could turn to Randy Dobnak or Devin Smeltzer for the No. 5 spot. And they have not ruled out bringing Pineda back.
La Velle E. Neal covers the Twins and Major League Baseball for the Star Tribune.