On July 27th, 2011, Carlos Beltran’s seven-year stint in Queens came to an end when the New York Mets shipped him to the San Francisco Giants. The prospect received in the trade was 2009 first round (sixth overall) draft pick, Zack Wheeler.
The trade was viewed as a huge win for the Mets. Wheeler projected to be a top-of-the-rotation starter, and would be a major piece of their rebuild. However, nearly seven years after the trade, the return for the trade is no longer quite the home run it was originally perceived to be.
Wheeler’s lone full year in the majors came in 2014, when he posted a 3.54 ERA, 1.327 WHIP, and 187 strikeouts in 185.1 innings. Those were encouraging numbers for a 24-year-old, but the following Spring Training brought a UCL tear and subsequent Tommy John surgery, and Wheeler lost his entire 2015 and all but one rehab inning of 2016. His return to the majors in 2017 was a difficult one (5.21 ERA, 1.587 WHIP, 81 K’s in 86.1 innings), and it, too, was cut short by multiple arm issues.
Now, Wheeler feels like the forgotten man of the Mets’ pitching staff. In 2018, he needs to re-establish himself as a key cog for this team. Here are three ways he can do it.
Lean On The Curveball
Last year during the regular season, the Cleveland Indians pitching staff threw breaking balls 29 percent of the time, more than any other team. Something else the team did: STRIKE. PEOPLE. OUT. More than any team. Ever.
Their pitching coach? New Mets manager Mickey Callaway, who explained on Orange and Blue Thing this January that while many of the pitchers on his staff had very good-to-great curve balls, the heavy dose of breaking balls was at least partially due to swing adjustments by batters looking for more lift on the ball.
Callaway will likely tailor his pitching philosophy to fit the Mets’ staff, but it’s still highly likely that Mets opponents will be getting a healthy dose of breaking balls next season. And who happens to have a good-to great breaking ball that might benefit from a new approach? Yes, that’s Mr. Zack Wheeler.
Move to the Bullpen
Wheeler's velocity does conjure up thoughts of transitioning him to a late-inning relief role. Shorter outings have the potential to put less stress on Wheeler’s body, and Wheeler could simply focus on executing for three outs instead of 15-to-21.
New pitching coach Dave Eiland has a history of transitioning oft-injured starters to dominant closers, most notably Wade Davis. Meanwhile, Callaway has emphasized the importance of shorter starts and more relief appearances during his interaction with the New York media, which would require more quality bullpen arms. Wheeler would have to solve the command issues he's had at the big league level (165 walks in 371.2 innings), but he could be the Mets starter best suited for this conversion.
I know, I know. Easier said than done.
A great deal has been said about former head trainer Ray Ramirez’s firing, and while I’m personally dubious of the idea that one man led to so many players hitting the disabled list, it does feel like the Mets are onto something in their new move toward health. It is reassuring that Mickey Callaway has referenced the importance of player health so frequently during preseason interviews. And if they can indeed crack this code, Wheeler would surely benefit.
If Wheeler can avoid the disabled list, it would be a huge mental hurdle for him to clear. And if he can conquer that, there's no reason Wheeler shouldn't be able recapture his early career form.