With Zach Wheeler back on track to return to the major leagues, it’s time for the New York Metropolitans to really think about how to get the best out of him this season while ensuring his recovery is a success.
Pitch counts, innings limits, six-man rotations, and even piggy-back starts have become a common part of Mets’ fans vernacular as the organization has done what it could to keep its young staff healthy. With Zach Wheeler limited to 125 innings this season, the Metropolitans will have to be creative once again, perhaps even more so—particularly if they want to use the talented righthander deep into September and October.
Right now, the plan is to keep Wheeler in extended spring training, and that’s a good idea, though it’s one that will no doubt have him chomping at the bit in Port St. Lonesome. Nevertheless, protecting his arm from the cool April elements and the inconsistency of the early season schedule is good long-term planning. With Gsellman, Lugo, and, dare I say it, Montero all capable of filling the fifth man role, the Mets have plenty of pitching talent as the season gets underway. Hopefully Wheeler finishes up spring training strong and can use the month of April to fine tune his skills.
Once he returns to the major leagues, obviously, he should be handled with care for 15-20 starts, or about 100 innings. Let him pitch every five days and get him as comfortable and confident as possible. Build him back up again into the pitcher we saw in 2013-14. Assuming the results are there, he should be in the right frame of mind as the season enters the final quarter. With any luck, at that point, the Mets are more concerned about the post-season than the stretch run. One can dream, right?
That’s the point where you sit him down and talk about moving to the pen for the remainder of the season, a move he has been resistant to. “I’m a starter. I want to be a starter,” he told the NY Post in February. That’s understandable, particularly at this point in his recovery. “I don’t even know if I could do every other day in the bullpen,’’ he’s quoted as saying.
Fair enough: Having a familiar routine is important at this stage. However, in late August, staring down an innings’ limit and with a chance to pitch in the post-season on the line, I think Wheeler will eagerly do whatever will help the team.
If it turns out he’s any good in the pen, he’ll be a valuable weapon to pick up at that point in the season. Look back at what Tyler Clippard, Addison Reed, and Fernando Salas added to the team over the last two seasons (ok, maybe we don’t have to look at Clippard). Perhaps though, Fireman Bart in 2015 is the best example. In that post-season, Colon picked up two wins in seven relief appearances. There’s no one in the Mets organization or in the fan base who wouldn’t consider that to be a wonderful coda on Wheeler’s comeback season.