Zack Wheeler was supposed to be a part of an extinct New York Mets past, but now he’s never been more critical to their promising future. Coming off of winning the National League pennant, this is a team that has to buy low and sell high in order to improve the roster, not move one of its core players for cents on the dollar in a lateral deal.
Wheeler was believed to be gone. Signed, sealed and almost delivered in a deadline trade that would have sent him and SS Wilmer Flores to the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for Carlos Gomez, Wheeler went so far as to call General Manager Sandy Alderson in order to express his desire to remain with the Mets. He wanted to stick with the club that gave him his first taste of the major leagues, and now the 25-year-old hurler instead continues his road to recovery from Tommy John surgery as a member of the orange and blue. Originally stolen from the San Francisco Giants for a version of Carlos Beltran the Mets no longer needed, Wheeler’s value—health withstanding—only stands to rise going forward.
Assistant GM John Rico told reporters that while the team is not “actively” shopping its young starter, New York’s group of decision-makers are not ready to entirely close the door on any possible scenario regarding Wheeler’s future. While that is the traditional answer for anyone who isn’t deemed a part of a team’s superstar class—and Wheeler is not in that group—there is nothing to be gained by floating a player’s name who all of Major League Baseball already knows can be had for the right price. The Mets have already waited patiently through Wheeler’s rehab to date, and there is no difference-maker that New York can realistically purchase from the high-priced aisle when offering an item from their own discount bin. It just doesn’t work that way.
The appeal of Wheeler is obvious to teams that would be willing to take a risk on his health: A 25-year-old flamethrower under control through the 2019 season is a very tough asset to come by in today’s game. But just because the Mets have strength in numbers when it comes to their pitching doesn’t mean the team should suddenly dilute its talent pool. Adding a plus to an area of strength is still a net positive, and pitching serves as the Mets’ backbone.
The steady Bartolo Colon is now a free agent, and he’s not going to return unless it’s in a long relief role. Jon Niese, with two team options for 2016 and 2017, could be a free agent by season’s end if he isn’t traded prior, and he could still be dealt even if the team picked up his very affordable options. Matt Harvey is coming off a season of 200-plus innings the year after his own Tommy John procedure and Steven Matz, who has also undergone the same elbow surgery, has made all of nine starts in the big leagues. Suddenly, Wheeler doesn’t look so much like a luxury as he does an absolute necessity.
Despite pitching with elbow pain before the Giants even drafted him out of high school back in 2009, Wheeler has recorded an impressive 271 strikeouts through his first 285.1 IP. Although the hits allowed (257) and walks issued (125) will need to be corrected, one has to believe that Wheeler will be less predictable and should be more open to using his secondary pitches when attacking the opposition with his health in order.
Rather than trying to upgrade around the margins and hoping for a potential value locking in as a pick to click, the Mets need to think much bigger. Wheeler is not going to bring in the type of big bat this group so desperately needs, and that means New York will have to depart with a bigger trade asset if serious about adding thump to a National League winning lineup that currently offers no credible middle of the order threat. That’s not a knock against David Wright, Travis d’Arnaud or Lucas Duda, but those guys are not hitting in the three or four spot for a team that is winning anything of note.
Think of what the Mets could be with Wheeler in the fold. New York could roll out Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Matz and Wheeler, potentially providing the best starting pitcher on any night of the week regardless of the matchup. The club would be rich with options, give itself the necessary versatility in order to delay decision-making until there is a better idea of the ultimate direction and be stronger in the short and long-term as a result.
Pitching is the most expensive skillset to purchase on the free agent market, and every organization is relentlessly trying to develop its own in order to offset the cost of building a team. With so many failing to do so and willing to overpay as a result, Wheeler’s stock is only set to rise for a front office that prefers to use its tangible assets as currency instead of cold hard cash.