Life for minor league players is tough enough. Then some face the extra added reality of being traded for the first time ever. Depending who they get dealt for could decide their initial level of acceptance by the receiving fan base. For highly touted prospects, it is even tougher when they get traded into rebuilding situations like the one the Mets are currently in. These young players depart the friendly and familiar environments of their former parent clubs and step into a condition of immediate and uncompromising expectations, where they are also bound to get unfairly over-scrutinized. It doesn’t help that there is a considerable segment of the local (NYC) mainstream media who speak and act as if the Mets minor league system consists solely of recent acquisitions Zack Wheeler, Travis d’Arnaud, and Noah Syndergaard. Fans are no better. We are the ones who either elevate prospects to an otherwise unrealized status, or detract from and minimize them. Suffice it to say, there are a wide range of sensitivities related to Zack Wheeler which invariably affect any conversation when he is topic one. Be it positive or negative, once broached by Mets fans twenty-one months ago, everything regarding Zack Wheeler has invoked great passion ever since.
Feb 21, 2013; Port St Lucie, FL, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler (65) poses for a picture during photo day at Tradition Field. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Thursday night in Las Vegas, the newly embattled Zack Wheeler will take his turn on the mound still in search of his first win of the season. The Mets’ highly regarded pitcher has been the subject of recent and somewhat intense debate within the media, among fans, and throughout the Mets blogosphere (which includes us here at Rising Apple). In fact, Wheeler has been a hot topic ever since being acquired on July 28, 2011, in the deal that sent Carlos Beltran to the San Francisco Giants.
A few days ago, I suggested Collin McHugh deserves the first crack at pitching again in Flushing ahead of Zack Wheeler. Then on Wednesday, Rising Apple Editor Danny Abriano set out to disprove growing popular myths regarding Wheeler’s 2013 start, and advised against flipping out over his perceived early struggles. Now that Matt Harvey is enjoying success at the major league level, after relatively few (245.2) minor league innings pitched, many Mets fans are clamoring for Zack Wheeler (341.0 innings) to join him. Of the opposite opinion are fans who do not believe Wheeler is ready for the major leagues yet. And then there’s Terry Collins, who needs all the help he can get. Coach wanted Wheeler on the club weeks ago. Poor guy…
In truth, Zack Wheeler’s 2013 campaign has so far been overshadowed by side items (when it’s his pitching that should be the main focus). Back in February, Wheeler’s spring training hit an early snag when he sustained a strained oblique. While the chances of Wheeler heading north with the club were remote to begin with, tweaking his oblique effectively ruined his chance to showcase his talents, perhaps impress, and maybe even change some minds. His recovery went well. In March, during minor league spring training, Zack Wheeler was involved in a somewhat complicated situation. I summarized the incident for Rising Apple, as reported by Andy Martino, that first involved a Zack Wheeler purpose pitch delivered at one of his own teammates. The situation then began to revolve around alleged racial tensions escalating in the locker room afterwards. My intention then was to highlight the Mets’ handling of the situation, and not to pass judgement on Zack Wheeler. Outside of Andy Martino, the incident remained largely ignored. I’m not about to sift through the events now. As someone who considers himself old-school, I have a fond appreciation for chin music, and its various applications. I mention the loosely reported racial incident merely as a matter of record. Moving on, once Las Vegas’ regular season began, Wheeler battled a finger blister on his pitching hand, which inevitably led to the reactions and perceptions attached to his underwhelming start.
There is never a bad time to recall that baseball is a perfect game played by imperfect people. But within our little insular Mets world, Zack Wheeler can set much of the local population right tonight. As the back end of the Mets rotation continues to be a question mark, more eyes will be looking for him. With a good, impressive outing, Wheeler can calm much of the building anxiety he caused since walking six batters in his last start.
This isn’t just about us back here on the east coast. This is also about the good folks in Las Vegas. They have their own relationship with the team, whereas us denizens of METropilis tend to concentrate on individual players. Tonight, the Las Vegas 51’s need a warm welcome upon returning from their winter odyssey against the Colorado Springs Sky Sox. A big crowd is expected tonight to provide their arctic expeditionary team just that. The last two games against the Colorado Springs Sky Sox were canceled due to trillions of tons of snow, and absurdly cold weather in the Rocky Mountain area.
The 51’s are home for a quick four game series against the Tacoma Rainiers. After the 51’s receive their welcome home hug from the fans, baseball will again become order of the night – or not. Tonight also just happens to be Budweiser Dollar Beer Night at Cashman Field. So forget me, Danny, Rising Apple, or anyone else. Zack Wheeler will have thousands of scouts in attendance this evening, tossing out all kinds of opinions one ale at a time. Being graded by a sponsored crowd under the influence is probably the last thing he needs should he stink up the joint again.
The rest of us back east will just have to wait for the box score. The game starts at 10:05 PM EST. In the meantime, we here spend a lot of time fussing how hitting is over-sensationalized in the Pacific Coast League, and that pitching woes get over-dramatized. Tonight, a potential crowd of 8,000 slightly buzzed locals might prove to be far more harsher judges of talent than us. Then again, if Zack Wheeler impresses, it should be a highly festive atmosphere at Cashman Field to say the least. Back east, all we really get to do is feel better about ourselves. Makes me wish I was in Vegas tonight.
Life is complicated enough. May I suggest we all pound a few back once in a while, and enjoy the game of baseball. To the folks in Vegas, have fun at the game. Pound one down for me.