Posted on February 8, 2017 by Bryan Zarpentine
The last two years must have felt like an eternity for New York Mets pitcher Zack Wheeler. When spring training gets underway next week, Wheeler will be nearly two years removed from Tommy John surgery. He hasn’t thrown a pitch in the big leagues since September 2014 after a series of setbacks prevented him from returning to the Mets last season as expected. Wheeler, who is still just 26 after missing two full seasons, is now hoping to reclaim a spot in a starting rotation that has the potential to be the best in baseball this year. But doing so may not be easy.
The last time Wheeler was in the majors, he posted a 3.54 ERA across 32 starts for the Mets in 2014. He looked poised to join Matt Harvey and 2014 National League Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom in leading New York’s rotation in 2015 and for many years to come. In fact, before undergoing Tommy John, many believed he had the highest ceiling of the team’s young pitchers.
But so much has changed in the two years Wheeler has been away. Noah Syndergaard has emerged as the team’s ace and one of the best young pitchers in the game. Lefty Steven Matz has also emerged has a potential frontline starter. Those two have joined Harvey and deGrom in giving the Mets a bonafide Fab Four of starters, a group that carried the Mets to the National League pennant in 2015, while Wheeler watched from a distance.
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With those four in place, there may be just one spot available in New York’s rotation this spring. Wheeler is certainly a candidate for that spot, but after Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo gave the team’s rotation a big boost last September, they are also rotation candidates who could potentially beat out Wheeler, even if he proves to be healthy. There is also the possibility that Wheeler could be moved to the bullpen to conserve his innings in 2017 after two years on the shelf.
To Wheeler, neither of those scenarios are all that appealing. He has his mind set on just one heading into spring training. “I know I belong in the starting rotation, there’s no question about that,” Wheeler said recently while getting a jumpstart on spring training in Florida. “I’m a starter. I want to be a starter.”
The Mets aren’t making any plans with regard to Wheeler until they see him pitch and see that he’s fully recovered. However, a move to the bullpen for Wheeler is something the Mets may consider after his long recovery from elbow surgery. It’s also something the righty is whole-heartedly against.
“I feel that guys that go to the bullpen get stuck in the bullpen, and I don’t want to do that,” Wheeler explains. “Because either you are doing bad and you stay in the bullpen because you can’t be a starter, or you are doing really good and they can’t afford to move you out of the bullpen. So you are going to get stuck there, and that’s why I’m trying to let everybody know that I’m not a bullpen guy, I’m a starter.”
Wheeler has just eight career relief appearances, and all of those came during his first season as a professional in 2010. He isn’t even sure if he could make the adjustments necessary, both physical and mental, to handle being a reliever after a lifetime of being starter. At the same time, Wheeler knows that the bullpen may be inevitable; after two years on the shelf, making 32 starts this season, as he did in 2014, doesn’t seem feasible.
“I know at some point I will have to go to the bullpen thing just because of the innings,” Wheeler admits. “I hate innings limits, but I guess that is part of the game these days. You’ve got to do what they say. They’re the boss.” He also acknowledges that the Mets will make decisions in his best interest.
Of course, after two years without throwing a pitch in the big leagues, Wheeler needs to be worried about pitching pain free and showing that he still has the same kind of dynamic stuff he had pre-surgery before he starts thinking about what role he may have with the Mets this season. In the short term, a move to the bullpen may be inevitable. But in a way, it’s nice to see that Wheeler still views himself as a starter and isn’t willing to settle for anything less.