Zack Wheeler Strong in 3rd AAA Start; Could be Close


Zack Wheeler was brilliant at times during his third start of the season for AAA in Las Vegas this afternoon.  Before delving into that, let’s go over his first two starts (I’ve watched all three):

In his first start of the season on April 4th, Wheeler labored badly.  His control was poor and his ability to finish off hitters was non-existent.  The result was Wheeler lasting just three and a third innings.  He gave up two runs on three hits, walked three, struck out three, and uncorked a wild pitch.  Wheeler’s second start on April 9th was better, but still not up to the standards he’s set for himself.  Over five and a third innings, he gave up four runs (one earned) on eight hits.  He again walked three batters, and struck out six.

Feb 23, 2013; Port St Lucie, FL, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler (65) throws in the third inning during a spring training game against the Washington Nationals at Tradition Field. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, it was revealed that Wheeler had thrown his first two starts while suffering from a blister/avulsion on the middle finger of his pitching hand.  The blister/avulsion is something that has cropped up throughout Wheeler’s career (he landed on the 7 day disabled list last year with the same issue).  So, it’s logical to assume that some of Wheeler’s woes over his first two starts were likely due in part to the injury he was pitching through.  Additionally, one has to realize that since he was sidelined by an oblique injury during spring training, Wheeler’s first two starts were a spring training of sorts for him.  Lastly, he’s pitching in the notoriously hitter friendly Pacific Coast League.  Now, onto today’s start…

Although the camera angle was poor, it was easy to differentiate this version of Wheeler from the one who took the hill on April 4th and April 9th.  His stuff and mound presence was more impressive than his line indicates (five and a third innings pitched, six hits, three runs, no walks, eight strikeouts).  While working quickly, Wheeler featured the swing and miss fastball that has scouts drooling over him.  He threw 97 pitches (61 strikes and 36 balls).  Aside from his fastball that ranged from 94 to 97 MPH and was often at the knees of the hitters, Wheeler also displayed a tremendous curve.

The Mets will likely want to see Wheeler duplicate what he did today several more times before considering calling him up, but it should be noted that his next start (which will be on April 19th) will be the last one before the magic date of April 20th passes.  After that date, the Mets will have assured themselves of an extra year of team control over Wheeler.

Aside from securing the extra year of team control, there’s another issue the Mets have to consider – Super Two status.  Here’s a crash course on what that is (from FanGraphs):

"Normally, players must have accrued at least three years of MLB service time before they can be eligible for salary arbitration — or in other words, until they can negotiate their salary and not have it automatically set by their club. But certain players with less than three years of service time can also become eligible for arbitration, if they meet the following criteria:● If they have less than three years of service time, but more than two.● If they rank within the top 22% of all 2-year players in terms of service time.So if a player finishes a season and is just shy of three years of service time (say, 2 years and 171 days) then MLB will award them Super Two status and they’ll be eligible for arbitration. Since these players are still under team control for another three seasons, that means Super Two players get four year of salary arbitration instead of the typical three."

Most have guessed that this year’s Super Two cutoff date will occur sometime in the middle of June.  If Wheeler is called up after that date, the Mets won’t have to worry about him getting an extra year of arbitration.  If he’s called up before that date and performs well, he may become Super Two eligible.

Sandy Alderson noted before the season that if John Buck were to get hurt, Travis d’Arnaud would be called up (regardless of Super Two considerations).  The same may apply to Wheeler if he’s ready and there’s a need in the rotation, but that remains to be seen.After watching the way Matt Harvey has opened up the 2013 campaign, it’s tantalizing to imagine Wheeler joining him in the rotation to go along with Jonathon Niese, Dillon Gee, and hopefully a recovered Shaun Marcum.

Before getting called up to the majors last year, Matt Harvey’s starts were uneven in AAA.  After being promoted to the Mets, he kicked it into a gear that most had never seen from him.  Basically, he was saving his best bullets for the biggest stage.  Zack Wheeler may be doing the same thing Harvey was doing last year: looking to impress and merit a callup, while at the same time saving his best for when he reaches Citi Field.

Wheeler could get the call to the Mets as soon as the end of the month.  More likely, I’d expect him to arrive sometime in May.  If the Mets are hellbent on avoiding Super Two status, Wheeler will likely have to remain in AAA for two more months.

Presently, the Mets are going with both Jeremy Hefner and Aaron Laffey in their rotation.  Even if Shaun Marcum returns and remains healthy, there will still be an immediate need for Wheeler.  If Wheeler continues to turn in performances like the one he put on this afternoon, the Mets should disregard potential Super Two status and get him up here.  The big issue was keeping Wheeler down beyond April 20th.  That hurdle is about to be crossed.  Once it is, the official countdown to Wheeler’s big league debut will begin.

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