The Mets’ projected No. 5 starter has pitched exactly one professional inning since the end of the 2014 season. His recovery from Tommy John surgery has been painfully slow. So of course he’s not interested in doing more things that are intended to protect that elbow.
That starter, right-hander Zack Wheeler, showed potential in ’14, his first full big league season. He was inconsistent, but he also averaged a strikeout per inning (187 in 185 1/3 innings) before his UCL unraveled. Now that he’s close to returning to a big league mound, he wants to immediately return to his previous role, too: pitching every fifth day.
No bullpen work for him, he says. That’s just not his deal.
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“I feel that guys that go to the bullpen get stuck in the bullpen, and I don’t want to do that,” Wheeler, 26, told the New York Post after a pre-spring training workout in Port St. Lucie, Fla. “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 made eight relief appearances in his professional career, all in 2010, his first minor league season. He’s not eager to find out how his arm will react to being used every other day in the bigs.
Wheeler needs to check himself here. A guy with three-plus years of service time, two of them spent on the DL, shouldn’t be making any proclamations or demands. He and the Mets have no idea when (or if) if his patched-up elbow will produce high-90s heat again. Working, say, multiple innings in relief every three to four days early (or late) in the season doesn’t seem unreasonable.
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“I know at some point I will have to go to (do) the bullpen thing just because of the innings,’’ Wheeler said. “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.’’
Those bosses haven’t said how many innings they’re projecting for Wheeler if he stays healthy, but whatever the number is, the idea is to protect an investment that is small right now ($800,000 for this season, according to Baseball Prospectus) but could grow exponentially as soon as next year. Wheeler needs to understand that impatience can cost him a lot of money.
By the way, you know who else began his career as a starter before moving to the ‘pen? The Mets’ primary closer, Jeurys Familia. The club can’t afford to move him out of his role, and he’ll be welcomed back after he serves a likely suspension for being accused of domestic violence.
If misfortune really strikes Wheeler and he proves to be a valuable late-inning reliever, he ought to review the contracts the best ninth-inning guys (and the best eighth-inning guys) have received this offseason. He’ll still be in line for a good payday, even if he’s earning his money just one inning at a time.