When Zack Wheeler walked into the Phillies Clubhouse in Clearwater Monday morning, he was greeted by several of his teammates. J.T. Realmuto led the way. Kyle Schwarber was right behind. There were congratulatory hugs. There were a lot of smiles. There were some playful jabs. It was typical behavior among a close-knit group of teammates.

Aaron Nola waited at the end of the line and gave Wheeler an embrace and a handshake.

One would think it was to congratulate Wheeler on the birth of his third child, which happened last week.

Instead, that last embrace meant so much more.

Wheeler and Nola have been the twin aces at the top of the Phillies rotation for the past four years. They will have at least another four years together.

That’s because the celebration wasn’t necessarily about the newborn – those congrats probably happened outside the view of the hovering media. Instead, they were giving him kudos on signing the largest contract extension in the history of baseball for a pitcher.

Wheeler inked a three-year, $126 million contract extension with the Phillies Monday morning. The AAV is $42 million a year, the fourth-largest in the history of the sport for a pitcher.

That means Wheeler and Nola have a chance to define an era of Phillies pitching unlike no two pitchers ever have in the franchise’s history. Barring injury, they will be the top two pitchers in the rotation for eight years together. Good luck finding another pair that did that. The only one I could come up with was Robin Roberts and Curt Simmons in the 1950s. Wheeler and Nola have already matched them with one World Series appearance, and likely have multiple chances to better that in future seasons.

Both were signed to huge contracts this offseason. Nola’s was for seven years and $172 million. The Phillies have hitched their wagon to the duo to anchor a rotation for the better part of a decade, and in Nola’s case, even longer.

They know that the financial investment starts to bring some challenges into the equation once Wheeler’s extension kicks in next year, because, as much as the Phillies are willing to spend “stupid money,” as principal owner John Middleton once called it, there’s a line where the word stupid crosses from being a portmanteau meaning aggressive and exciting to its actual Webster’s definition.

But they are OK with that.

“We have a high payroll as you know,” said Phillies President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski. “We are very appreciative of what ownership gives us. … But there’s a limit on how much we can do. It’s not unlimited, but there will be questions I think we’ll face more at the end of the year. Once we see how our season progresses.

“We looked at it in different ways and there will be challenges then, but the way I look at it, it’s okay. We’ll take those challenges when we know we can start off with top of the rotation and we have Wheeler and Nola and we have other good pitchers that we like and we have some good young pitching behind them. … So, we figure let’s tackle that at the end of the year and we’ll see where it takes us, but sure, there’ll be some challenges, but it’s a good place to start.”

Another good place to start is that the contract begins next year rather than this year. By not supplanting the final season of Wheeler’s current five-year, $118MM, the Phillies prevented themselves from being vaulted into the third tier of the luxury tax, which would cost them more tax money and drop their draft pick by 10 spots.

Another part of this deal is that after this season, Wheeler will have earned 10-and-5 rights, meaning he’s played 10 years in the league and at least five with his current team, meaning he can veto any potential trade over the life of his new contract.

Add all that to the mix of $42 million a year, which has only ever been offered to guys named Shohei Ohtani, Justin Verlander, and Max Scherzer, and well, there’s a much harsher spotlight on Wheeler to perform now than ever before.

“I mean, there’s definitely pressure, especially being in Philadelphia, you know, it’s a tough place to play,” Wheeler said. “So you have your ups and downs or have bad games, bad innings, you might get booed here and there when you are pulled off the field, but it’s part of the game, you know, you take that and use that as motivation and try to build off of that because you don’t want that to happen again. And you know, there is pressure to live up to the contract but if you take care of what you need to, hopefully it will take care of itself on the field.”

Now, it shouldn’t be conflated that Wheeler was saying anything negative about Philadelphia. Quite the contrary. He believes there’s no better place to pitch in the world. With apologies to Scott Rolen, this is baseball heaven.

“I’ll always love playing in Philly,” he said. “When I was a visitor playing there and even growing up in Atlanta, you know, watching the Braves play the Phillies all the time. The crowd was always amazing. [They] bring the atmosphere to the ballpark and we just feed off of that. Like I said, I’ve enjoyed my time here and I’m looking forward to more years.

“In-season and postseason, I love those big moments. I really just enjoy being here in Philly. The fans are the best and playing in Citizens Bank [Park] in October – there’s nothing like going out there.”

Getting to October is almost a mandate now. The Phillies already had an astronomical payroll, and this puts them in a rare stratosphere. The 2024 season hasn’t even begun and the Phillies already have more than $200 million committed for 2025. So, the Phillies are all-in, as if that wasn’t obvious already.

But how long is that window? Bryce Harper has eight years left on his deal. Trea Turner has nine, and Nola has seven. But Wheeler didn’t want a contract of that length. nope. Instead, he wanted something shorter. He’ll turn 34 in May, which means he’ll be 37 at the end of this extension. Pitchers do pitch beyond that age, and do so effectively, as Verlander proved a year ago, but Wheeler might not want to go that long.

“I do enjoy pitching and I want to be here,” Wheeler said. “I love competing. But, you know, I don’t want to play until I’m ‘old-old’ and I want to be around my family and I’m definitely, you know, enjoying the moment here and want to enjoy it every time out.”

It’s the first sign of a timeline for someone from this core group of Phillies. Sure, he could still keep pitching beyond this contract, but he also sounded like a guy that would be content with not pitching beyond this deal if things go well enough for the Phillies between 2024 and 2027.

That’s a lot of time. It might be an all-in-to win year, but not a win-at-all-costs year, if that makes sense. In other words, while the onus is on winning in 2024, as it should be, the Phillies know there is still some runway after it.

The pilot and co-pilot of the pitching staff tasked with landing that plane for the next four years were the Phillies two most important signings heading into 2024.

And now, the pressure of those contracts is on their shoulders.

Rotation schedule

Wheeler will make his first appearance of the Spring on Tuesday and then pitch every fifth day until the regular season begins. With the way those things line up, Nola would pitch the opener at Citizens Bank Park on March 28th, against Atlanta, and Wheeler would slot in to start the second game of the season, on Saturday March 30th.

Lineup stuff

It’s hard to ever really take anything out of a Spring Training lineup, especially this early, but it’s notable that for a road game against Toronto the Phillies’ top five guys were:

  1. Kyle Schwarber DH
  2. Trea Turner SS
  3. Bryce Harper 1B
  4. Nick Castellanos RF
  5. Bryson Stott 2B

Where have we seen that before?

Wouldn’t surprise me to see it again… a lot. With Realmuto hitting sixth, Alec Bohm seventh, Brandon Marsh eighth and John Rojas ninth.