After two months of speculation, the media circus surrounding the New York Mets' promotion of Zack Wheeler is nearly through. The organization's top prospect, and general manager Sandy Alderson's first and most prized acquisition, will soon trade in his Las Vegas 51s jersey for the orange and blue.
According to the New York Daily News' John Harper, MLB.com's No. 7 overall prospect is likely to make his major league debut when the Mets play five games in four days on the road against the Atlanta Braves starting on Monday, June 17.
What day will he make the first start of what the Mets hope will be a long and successful career marked by multiple World Series wins and Cy Young awards? It is looking more and more like the front end of a doubleheader against the rival (and first-place) Braves on June 18. Talk about throwing a kid into the fire.
Most Mets fans surely haven't been thrilled about the delayed promotion that has been tailored around the projected "Super Two" cut—a rule that determines what point players are eligible for arbitration. The decision to keep Wheeler in Las Vegas will save the team a few million dollars down the road, as he now won't be eligible for arbitration until after the 2016 season.
While the move, or lack thereof, wasn't genius from a public relations standpoint, it could allow the Mets to pay a top-tier pitcher somewhere around $500,000.
But will Wheeler be a top-tier pitcher? We don't have the power to look into the future, but we'll get our first sample within the next 10 days or so.
Midseason Major League Baseball call-ups are one of the most fascinating and unique aspects in sports. A team receives midseason reinforcements that could potentially change the course of a season without having to sacrifice valuable assets. The player is plucked from a minor league affiliate and immediately added to the team's roster with an opportunity to make an instant impact.
This does not happen in other sports.
Player-for-player trades rarely occur in the NFL, and midseason NBA roster changes come at the price of shipping out players or draft picks. It occasionally happens in the NHL, but contributions made by call-ups are not magnified or scrutinized to the extent baseball call-ups are.
As it stands now, Wheeler will make his debut in his home state of Georgia against a team that leads the National League with 85 home runs, ranks fourth in runs scored and has won seven of nine this month.
Instead of starting against the Chicago Cubs on Friday—the originally reported opponent and date—Wheeler will be thrown to the wolves right away. The Braves currently sit atop the NL East and have the second-best record (39-24) in Major League Baseball behind the St. Louis Cardinals.
Atlanta's lineup is loaded with power bats from top to bottom, and home runs have been a point of trouble for Wheeler in Las Vegas. He has allowed eight this season through 63 innings, twice as many as he surrendered in 2012 in 149 innings in Double-A and Triple-A.
However, Cashman Field in Las Vegas is known as one of the best hitters ballparks in the Pacific Coast League—a fact Wheeler has learned all too well through two-plus months in Nevada this season.
Six of the eight home runs he's given up have come at home, which has contributed to his 5.88 ERA in home starts. On the road at more pitcher-friendly venues, Wheeler has posted an impressive 2.92 ERA and has won four of five decisions.
That's good news for the Mets, as Turner Field has been one of the better places for pitchers to pitch in 2013 (via ESPN's Park Factor statistics). Take those numbers however you want (and with a grain of salt), but Wheeler should be able to keep the Braves from teeing off.
Wheeler hasn't been too sharp as far as recent performances go. He let up four earned runs in 4.2 innings in his last outing, and he will make one more before his call-up.
The Mets don't seem worried about the latest slip up, as the New York Daily News' Andy Martino reported that the team's decision to wait until the Atlanta series was made before his outing on June 7.
Wheeler's resume hasn't looked great lately, but he is in good company in terms of sub-par performances immediately prior to a call up.
A former Mets top prospect named Matt Harvey wasn't exactly blowing opponents away before he was called up either. Over his last three minor league starts, Harvey's ERA was 5.09. Wheeler has a 4.91 ERA over his last three.
Terry Collins even alluded to the fact that Wheeler may have had it with triple-A, as he approaches his big day. The New York Daily News' John Harper quoted Collins as saying, “Now (Wheeler) may be bored, I can’t answer that, I’m not there.”
Boredom? Boredom with a call-up to the show looming? Only Wheeler knows for sure, but it makes sense.
Wheeler is well-aware he'll be flying to New York soon. He probably couldn't be any happier to make the transition from a renowned hitters park to one that has a .747 Park Factor, by far the lowest in the majors.
His head might just not be in it right now.
Though it isn't always external factors that spell disaster for a young player. Some inexperienced pitchers get inside their own heads and stray from their original game plan when they are in front of tens of thousands of fans.
But by all accounts, including this one by ESPN's Adam Rubin, Wheeler takes after Harvey in terms of mental fortitude. And that is definitely a good thing for the Mets.
Rookie pitchers often have issues with first-game jitters. It's completely possible that Wheeler takes the mound with butterflies in his stomach and his heart beating out of his chest. He'll be in his home state at a baseball stadium he likely frequented as a kid, so some nervousness is to be expected.
Is this a possibility? Yes. Is it probable? No.
Wheeler's mental makeup paired with his talent on the mound will serve him well in New York—the former possibly more so than the latter.
This initial start against Atlanta won't make or break Wheeler's career. He probably won't be electrifying like Harvey was last July, but he won't be terrible either.
Expect something in the middle—along the lines of six innings and two to three runs. I'd like to make a prediction of eight shutout innings and double digit strikeouts, but for the sake of objectivity, I'll taper expectations for the just-turned 23-year-old from Smyrna, Georgia.
No matter what you expect, make sure to tune in.
You'll always want to remember where you were for Zack Wheeler's first start with the New York Mets. It just might turn out to be the first win of a couple hundred.
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