Whether real or imagined, the problems which beset Zack Wheeler earlier this season appear to be behind him. Based on his last three outings, the Mets top prospect is back to fulfilling everyone’s expectations again. Saturday night, Wheeler pitched impressively for a third consecutive start against the Albuquerque Isotopes. In doing so, he also logged his longest outing of the season, pitching into the eighth inning of Las Vegas’ 4-3 victory at Cashman Field.
For the game, Zack Wheeler threw ninety-nine pitches, sixty-one for strikes. Over his 7.1 innings of work, he allowed two earned runs on six hits, which included a solo home run. He walked only one batter and struck out seven. Wheeler brought a 4.00 ERA into the game and left with a 3.74 mark.
His last three starts certainly stand in stark contrast to his first five appearances of the season, in which he surrendered fifteen earned runs in 23.1 innings pitched for a 5.84 ERA. His velocity was never in question, as he still racked up twenty-eight strikeouts. However, surrendering twenty-six hits and issuing twelve walks is what had some people concerned.
In his defense, Wheeler pitched the better part of April with a blister on the middle finger of his pitching hand, and was being exposed to the oddities of the Pacific Coast League for the first time. He now looks to have turned things around. Ever since making a few mechanical adjustments heading into his start against Reno on April 30th, Wheeler has a 2-0 record over three games, including last night’s no-decision. Over that time, he pitched twenty innings, allowing just three runs for a 1.35 earned run average. He limited opponents to fourteen hits and walked just three for a 0.85 WHIP, and also fanned batters at a rate of 8.5 per 9, with nineteen strikeouts.
While Zack Wheeler is hot, the starting rotation in Flushing is not. For a second consecutive season, the front five was supposed to be the strength of the team. Instead, they’re floundering right alongside the offense, defense, and the bullpen. Outside of Matt Harvey, Mets starters appear to be battling themselves more than the opposition. Saturday, Jonathon Niese put forth the Mets’ most recent sub-par effort, which for him was right in line with an overall disappointing start. Dillon Gee has been nothing short of underwhelming after his comeback from off-season surgery. Jeremy Hefner has been wildly inconsistent, while Shaun Marcum is on the verge of receiving a bus ticket out of Queens. Suffice it to say, the fifth, and even fourth spot in the Mets’ rotation is up for grabs, and Mets fans no doubt want Zack Wheeler filling one.
Of course, there are still extenuating issues to haggle over before any promotion takes place. This year’s cut-off date for Super Two arbitration eligibility is speculated to be June 4th or the 15th depending who you ask. The Mets’ hierarchy is seemingly intent on keeping Wheeler in Las Vegas until then. If we have learned anything about our GM, it is how to interpret Sandy Alderson’s double-speak when it comes to spending Fred Wilpon’s money. Basically, Super Two status entitles a player to four years of arbitration instead of three. I personally do not concern myself with the minutia of Wheeler’s potential status. I see things one way – players play and owners pay. Unfortunately, the Mets are not contenders this season, and Zack Wheeler by himself will not change that. So, I can certainly envision the organization in this instance taking a deliberate approach and adhering to simple operating principles. Less forgiving fans might characterize the situation as being dollar foolish and penny wise. In Wheeler’s case, when matters boil down to dollars and cents, the affects the Pacific Coast League can have on pitching are easily ignored by old hats like Terry Collins, Sandy Alderson and Paul DePodesta who are well versed regarding how to interpret PCL performance.
As we know, every rose has its thorn – sorry, but the phrase fits. In the midst of his April struggles, subtle criticisms tumbled through Las Vegas regarding Wheeler’s maturity level. Earlier during minor league spring training, there was the matter of a purpose pitch aimed at organizational mate Aderlin Rodriguez. Within the context of a game, I can appreciate that brand of baseball. However, the incident extended into the locker room where one reporter claimed that racial tensions flared up. Needless to say, Zack Wheeler has had to perform some damage control and image repair along the way. Winning always seems to help sweep problems under the rug. That’s where we are now.
Natural ability and skill mean little to me without knowledge in application. Therefore, as Tom Seaver often preaches, I place considerable stock in understanding one’s craft. If the Super Two blockade holds firm, Zack Wheeler stands to make his arrival in Queens a month from now – another five to seven AAA starts away. By then, Wheeler will potentially reach four hundred innings pitched over his minor league career, making for a handsome body of work. Let’s just remember this was his first real taste of AAA. There is always more polish to be gained with another month’s work. I’m content to wait out the process, but after another two starts or so, I’ll have no more reservations regarding any developmental matters.