On Wednesday, July 27, 2011, the San Francisco Giants traded Single-A starting pitcher Zack Wheeler to the New York Mets for the slugging free agent to be Carlos Beltran. The trade signifies a change in philosophy by the Giants organization, which has steadfastly refused to trade its top-notch prospects for any type of a rental player.
Just a couple of years ago, the Giants would have never agreed to the deal that sent Wheeler to the Mets. The team was still building toward what it has become, and pitching is what was going to get it there. The surprising success of the Giants in 2010 catapulted them not only to the pinnacle of the sport but also into an organizational philosophy that allows them to take some chances, within reason.
In Zack Wheeler the Giants had a potential ace in the making. They could afford to be patient with him because they currently have three aces anchoring the rotation. Did the Giants believe that Wheeler had the potential to be better than the three current mainstays of the rotation, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner? Probably not better, but as good as Cain or Bumgarner at least.
That evaluation of Wheeler's potential would then bring the thought process to when and how he would make it into the rotation.
By all accounts, Wheeler is still two or three seasons away from being ready to pitch in the major leagues. By that time, the Giants will already have had to begun dealing with skyrocketing payroll for the pitching staff alone. Wheeler could have been used as a replacement for whichever pitcher they deemed expendable based on salary demands when he was ready to jump to the big leagues.
Perhaps the Giants aren't as concerned about salaries as one would think they are, or perhaps they made a conscious decision to worry about that when it comes time to worry about it. Brian Sabean knows his payroll is only going to go up with on-field success, but so is revenue, and let’s not forget that the Giants will stop making their annual $17 million mortgage payment on their ballpark in nine years. That increase in revenue doesn't help today, but it could allow them to be creative in a few years.
Another factor that worked its way into this decision is the other arms that they are currently developing in the minor leagues. Eric Surkamp, Heath Hembree, Jorge Bucardo and Michael Main are all pitchers that the Giants are high on, especially Surkamp.
I certainly am not suggesting that any of these players have the ceiling that Wheeler has, but if you take into consideration the abilities and the youth of the Giants' current rotation, you can surmise that Sabean and his team of advisors decided that they most likely don't need to develop another ace. It would be a luxury, but with the offensive holes that the team has, that luxury was used to improve a weakness.
There is another aspect to this trade that is a long shot, but not something that should be completely dismissed. Tim Alderson was a highly regarded pitching prospect for the Giants a couple of years ago. I recall him being compared to just below Tim Lincecum as a rising star in the Giants farm system. He was traded at the deadline in 2009 to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Freddy Sanchez.
Alderson has fallen nearly off the face of the earth since that trade. He is currently still pitching at AA Altoona, producing fairly pedestrian numbers, certainly not anything close to what should be expected from the 22nd overall pick of the 2007 draft.
Alderson's fall from grace raises the question, "Did the Giants front office know that his decline was imminent?" If that is the case, do they foresee a similar future for Wheeler? It's unlikely that this scenario is in fact the case, but it is something to consider.
Sabean identified a glaring hole in a team that has an opportunity to put itself in the history books if it can successfully defend its title. He addressed that weakness by trading a player who has a very high ceiling and happens to play a position that is a strength throughout the organization.
The hope is obviously that Carlos Beltran leads the Giants to a second straight World Series title. In that case the Giants would obviously not regret trading Wheeler, even if he goes on to have a Hall of Fame career.
The real question is, "If the Giants fail to win the World Series this year, will they regret trading Zack Wheeler?" I believe that as the general manager of a team, you cannot make that trade unless you have decided that regardless of the outcome of the season and regardless of the outcome of Wheeler's career, the trade was in the best interest of the ballclub at that time. The title of World Series champion puts your organization in a whole new realm where winning now has become the most important thing.