Of the current load of young star pitchers in the New York Mets organization, none has posed more question marks than 26-year-old Georgia native Zack Wheeler. Once slated to be a top-tier prospect after being drafted sixth overall in 2009, Wheeler has faced consistent injury issues that have significantly reduced his innings pitched in the major leagues.
While most scouts would agree that he possesses the character and experience to be an effective starter at the major league level, Wheeler’s ongoing setbacks after Tommy John surgery have the Mets wondering how to best utilize him this year to win now while keeping him healthy for a long-lasting career.
Many speculate that Zack Wheeler is most suited for a bullpen role this season, which would be especially logical considering the lack of depth the Mets currently face in that department. A fireballer like Wheeler who can hit 97 with his fastball could be an exceptional asset late in games, and could potentially lock down the 8th inning while Addison Reed fills in at closer during Jeurys Familia’s likely suspension. In doing so, the Mets would significantly reduce Wheeler’s innings count during the 2017 season, and would allow another young pitcher like Seth Lugo or Robert Gsellman to slide into the 5th spot in the rotation.
While this may sound like a dream scenario, there are several other factors to consider when moving Wheeler to the pen. First of all, and what many often forget, pitching out of the bullpen is an entirely different animal than starting a game.
When pitchers are scheduled to start on the mound, they often have the ability to warm up hours in advance, get into a groove, and follow the natural pace of the game.
Conversely, the bullpen requires pitchers to rapidly get prepared and, if they are even called into the game, immediately throw as effectively as they can. Having this sort of routine can put significant stress on a pitcher’s arm throughout the course of a season, and may be detrimental to a pitcher facing post-TJ setbacks like Wheeler.
Additionally, once starters transition into a bullpen role, they often are stranded on that island for their career. Current pitchers like Dellin Betances, Wade Davis, and Zach Britton have all converted to the bullpen after initially being starting pitchers, and all have remained relievers since.
Nothing should become final until evaluating his abilities during spring training, but if the Mets want Zack Wheeler to be the dominant starting pitcher they have invested in since 2011, it may be wise for them to keep him a 5-inning starter and build him back up to his ace potential, while searching elsewhere for a lockdown reliever.
Only the future will tell what the best management of Zack Wheeler is, but it is up to Sandy Alderson, Terry Collins, and the Mets organization to make the right call in 2017.