With a projected return to the big leagues in mid-July, Zack Wheeler will put the New York Mets in an interesting position. Pitchers who return from Tommy John in April often slide seamlessly back into the starting rotation. This was the case for the Mets last year with Matt Harvey. Wheeler, however, will return near the mid-point of the season. By that time, the Mets will already know in which direction their season is headed.
Harvey was being counted on to lead the staff last season when he returned from surgery. He performed admirably in that role, but Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard both proved to be better than most thought. Steven Matz will also presumably give the Mets a full season’s worth of starts in 2016. Matz, who will be the team’s number-four starter, had a 2.27 ERA in six starts last year. By the time Wheeler is ready to return to a major-league mound, the Mets could have already sent four starting pitchers to the All-Star Game with sub-2.50 ERAs.
Wheeler’s future is in the starting rotation. No one is debating that. Before his surgery, the 25-year-old right-hander was seen as having the most upside potential of all the Mets’ young aces. When he returns, however, serious consideration needs to be given to using him out of the bullpen in a setup role.
A few things need to happen before the Mets can fully commit to using Wheeler in relief. First, the rest of the rotation needs to stay healthy. That does not seem to be an issue in early February, but injuries have a funny way of popping up unexpectedly with starting pitchers. Harvey, deGrom, and Matz have all already been through Tommy John surgery. If all four of the young starters stay healthy, the Mets should be well on their way to returning to the postseason in a watered-down National League East.
Assuming the Mets are well-positioned to contend, Wheeler’s eventual postseason role should be considered. The Mets dealt with Harvey’s innings limit kerfuffle last season, and do not need a repeat. Wheeler’s innings will not approach Harvey’s total from last season, and his agent is not Scott Boras, but it may not be the best course of action to push him to start games deep into October with so many other strong options. A team’s postseason rotation does not necessarily use all five of its starters, and the number-five starter often slides to a long-relief role come the postseason. Wheeler could be a huge weapon out of the ‘pen come the postseason, but he has not appeared as a reliever since 2010 with the San Francisco Giants’ Single-A ballclub.
The Mets do not have a great bullpen outside of Jeurys Familia. Antonio Bastardo is a solid left-hander, but his inconsistencies make him a difficult option to rely upon to be the primary setup man. In the World Series, the Mets were forced to put undue pressure on Familia, and it did not work out (of course, it would have helped if Daniel Murphy was not playing second base with a trash can lid instead of a glove). In all likelihood, Wheeler will not be expected to pitch in the postseason rotation, the best plan attack for maximizing his value is to get him comfortable with the intricacies of pitching in relief.
It’s far too early in the year to chart a path for Wheeler’s usage in 2016. His role will largely be influenced by things that play out in the first few months of the season. If the Mets are solidly in line to make the playoffs and the rest of the rotation stays healthy, Wheeler should be ticketed for the bullpen this season. Most teams would have no choice but to slot him back in the starting rotation, but the Mets are blessed with an embarrassment of starting pitching riches. Bartolo Colon should be able to give the Mets six solid innings every five days, allowing Wheeler to be eased back into action. David Price was used similarly by the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays on their way to the World Series. Price entered the starting rotation for good the following season. With Colon back for one more year, the Mets can get the most out of Wheeler by turning him into a lockdown setup man for a few months. With rotation slots one through four locked down, the Mets can afford to get creative with Zack Wheeler for a few months, keeping an eye on a full-time return to the rotation in 2017.