With their chance to repeat as World Series champions fading quickly, the San Francisco Giants made a futile, last-minute deal with the New York Mets to acquire Carlos Beltran in late July of 2011. Despite the possibility of missing the playoffs and losing Beltran to free agency during the offseason, the Giants opted to part with a major piece of the future, sending the then 21-year-old Zack Wheeler to the Mets to complete the deal.
Selected in the first round (No. 6 overall) of the 2009 draft out of a Georgia high school, Wheeler ultimately inked a $3.3 million bonus with the Giants, which remains the most that the team’s spent on an amateur pitcher.
Prior to the trade, the 6’4”, 185-pound right-hander struggled in his professional debut in 2010, exhibiting poor command (5.83 BB/9) while battling a cracked fingernail on his pitching hand that limited him to only 58 2/3 innings.
The following season, his first full season as a professional, Wheeler once again battled issues with his command at High-A San Jose (4.81 BB/9), though it was overtly clear that the right-hander’s pure stuff was special. Not only did he post an impressive strikeout rate of 10.02 K/9, he also generated an exceptional number of ground-ball outs (2.33 GB/FB).
However, the hard-throwing right-hander’s career didn’t truly take off until he was shipped off to the Mets in late July of that season. Upon his arrival, Wheeler was assigned to the same level, High-A, but in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League. And if Giants’ fans weren’t already aggravated about the trade, the fact that Wheeler immediately thrived for St. Lucie only added to frustration.
Although he made only six starts over the remainder of the season, Wheeler turned plenty of heads by posting a 2.00 ERA, 10.33 K/9 and 1.67 BB/9 in 27 innings.
As a young pitching prospect, everything about Wheeler makes scouts drool. With a tall, lanky frame, the right-hander boasts a 93-96 mph fastball—which occasional scrapes 97-98 mph—thrown from a high three-quarters arm slot. More importantly, the pitch simply explodes out of his hand, jumping on opposing hitters with late, arm-side life. Wheeler has also improved his ability to throw the pitch on a downward plane with more consistency—hence the high ground-ball rates.
Beyond his plus fastball, Wheeler mixes in a plus curveball that continues to rank as one of the best in the minor leagues. In the same way that his heater explodes out of his hand, his breaking ball features a true 12-to-6 shape and frequently jelly-legs right-handed hitters.
Wheeler also has a chance for a third plus offering by the time he reaches the major leagues, as his changeup has constantly improved since entering the professional ranks. Given the right-hander’s clean, fluid arm action and deceptive delivery, the pitch has the potential to be a legitimate weapon as it already features late, fading action. Rounding out his highly impressive arsenal is a cutter/slider-like pitch that he’s employed to neutralize left-handed hitters—his one noticeable deficiency.
Although the enormous upside has always been present, Wheeler furthered his reputation as one of baseball’s top pitching prospects in his first full season with the Mets. Promoted to Double-A to open the year, the right-hander posted a 10-6 overall record with a 3.26 ERA, 7.1 H/9, 0.2 HR/9, 9.1 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9 in 116 innings spanning 19 starts. And at the midseason mark, he was selected to participate in his second XM Futures Game.
On July 26, when the Mets called up No. 2 prospect Matt Harvey to the major leagues, they made a corresponding move in promoting Wheeler to Triple-A Buffalo to replace him in the starting rotation.
And just as he’d done all season, the 22-year-old impressed as a younger player in an advanced league. Making six starts over the season’s final month and a half, Wheeler posted a 3.27 ERA, 6.3 H/9, 8/5 K/9 and 4.4 BB/9 while logging 33 innings.
His immediate success at the level provided Mets fans a glimpse of the team’s future, as Harvey, 23, simultaneously dazzled (2.73 ERA, 10.6 K/9) in 10 major league starts to conclude an otherwise disappointing season for the team.
Harvey’s overwhelming success in the major leagues quickly stirred a debate, as there were suddenly demands for a big league promotion for Wheeler, as well. But considering that the right-hander’s workload had already eclipsed his previous career high (115 IP in 2011), the Mets wisely opted to have him finish the season in the minor leagues.
But as we look ahead to the team’s 2013 starting rotation, the debate as to whether Wheeler is prepared to open the season in the major leagues will inevitably be a topic of interest this offseason.
However, considering how the Mets handled the development of Harvey, moving him through their system at a one level-per-year pace, it seemingly would make more sense for them to have Wheeler begin the 2013 season back at Triple-A.
Although he possesses one of the best overall arsenals among all pitching prospects, Wheeler still needs to refine his command before reaching the major leagues. Furthermore, he still struggles at times to retire left-handed hitters with consistency (.270 BAA in 220 plate appearances at Double-A), though he has made noticeable improvements over the past season.
But most importantly, because the Mets are unlikely to contend for a playoff spot in 2013, there’s simply no need to rush Wheeler to the big leagues. The organization should continue to remain steadfast in their gradual development of the immensely talented right-hander, just as they did with Harvey. There’s no reason to accelerate his arrival in the majors until he’s absolutely ready.
So, while a 2013 debut for Wheeler appears imminent, don’t expect it to happen anytime before the All-Star break.