The New York Mets have to make a decision on Zack Wheeler before the Major League Baseball trade deadline.
This season hasn’t gone as Wheeler and the Mets planned. Currently 35-38, they’re in third place in the National League East and rapidly skidding off course, their pitching staff in particular. Wheeler is at the forefront of those struggles. He owns a 4.94 ERA and 1.33 WHIP and has been unable to work off his successful 2018 campaign. He has also surrendered 14 home runs.
In the second half of 2018, Wheeler was one of the best pitchers in baseball. He was commanding the zone, dominating opposing lineups, and giving the Mets length. In fact, Wheeler pitched through seven or more innings in 10 of his last 12 starts. It looked like Wheeler was finally coming into his own as the ace-caliber starter the Mets envisioned he’d become.
Unfortunately for Wheeler, it appears he’s never going to mold into that echelon of a pitcher with the Mets. That doesn’t mean he can’t find success with the Mets, or with another ballclub, but he’s yet to string together a complete season. Injuries have plagued his career, as well as always having a continued uncertain future with the club — and the latter perhaps more so than the elbow woes over the last two seasons.
With Wheeler in line to be an unrestricted free agent this winter, general manager Brodie Van Wagenen has to take action, and he has two options.
The Case for Trading Wheeler
Even though Jacob deGrom hasn’t pitched at the historic level he did in 2018 (he has still been great, it just hasn’t been to the tune of a 1.70 ERA and 0.91 WHIP), Noah Syndergaard is having the worst season of his big-league career, Steven Matz has dealt with forearm discomfort, and Jason Vargas doesn’t give manager Mickey Callaway length, Wheeler has been the Mets most unreliable starter.
He has been tattooed this season, and one could argue his ERA could be a lot higher than 4.94. His Monday night outing against the Atlanta Braves is a perfect example. While surrendering four earned runs through six innings isn’t horrific, Wheeler also surrendered 12 baserunners (10 hits, two walks). He’s laboring through at-bats and showing signs of regression. The Mets can’t wait for him to turn a corner. If they get a reasonable trade offer for him, they have to consider pulling the trigger.
According to MLB Network‘s Jon Heyman, there are teams who “like Wheeler a lot.” The fact that there’s already a potential market for the right-hander shows that he can net a multiple-prospect return — although the early interest could also be a result of the now-hard July 31 trade deadline.
It’s still some time off, but Syndergaard will be a free agent after the 2021 season. Even though injuries and a discouraging season isn’t doing his bank account any favors, he’s widely viewed as a top-tier starting pitcher. The Mets will likely be forced to let go of either Syndergaard or Wheeler in the near future, considering how they need to improve their bullpen and deepen their depth chart. The last thing the Mets want is for Wheeler to hit the open market, leave Queens, and they get nothing for his services.
The Case for Extending Wheeler
With all the factors in favor of the Mets trading Wheeler, there is one significant benefit to extending the right-hander: money.
The Mets gave deGrom a five-year, $137.5 million extension before the regular season began; they’re paying Yoenis Cespedes, who has played just 119 games since 2017, roughly $29 million a season; Robinson Cano is getting $20 million a season from the Mets.
The Mets have the inside track on Wheeler, he’s familiar with the organization, and has been inconsistent his entire career; he’s not going to get a large contract on the open market. Even though he’s struggling and dealing with a hamstring injury, Syndergaard has shown, when healthy, that he can be an ace. Michael Conforto has come into his own as one of the best hitting outfielders in baseball. Syndergaard and Conforto are free agents after 2021; they’re each going to cash in on massive contracts.
Realistically, the Mets will be able to keep two of Wheeler, Syndergaard, and Conforto. Taking advantage of Wheeler’s struggles by convincing him to take a lowball offer would give the Mets more flexibility moving forward and allow them to offer Conforto whatever the market determines his worth to be. Plus, there’s the outside chance that Wheeler, at some point, becomes a potent starting pitcher based on his fastball still registering in the high 90s and him possessing a five-pitch arsenal (sinker, four seamer, slider, split finger, curveball).
This is an organization that’s regarded as being picky with their money, albeit they’ve spent heavily over the last three years. A low-risk, potential high-reward signing would make a lot of sense.
Doing Nothing is the Worst Possible Solution
If the Mets trade Wheeler, they can bolster a depleted farm system. If they extend Wheeler, they get him at a bargain rate. The scenario with no benefits is holding onto Wheeler and letting him hit the open market.
You could argue that Wheeler could have a monster second half like he did in 2018, but he’s pitching at a worse rate than he was last June. Say this continues, and Wheeler finishes with an ERA near five and the Mets lose nearly every game he takes the hill, their rotation is significantly worse, and there’s no backup plan. Sure, Wheeler would be a cheap signing, but if he goes through the season and doesn’t figure things out, the Mets aren’t going to want him in their starting rotation in 2020. They will have missed their chance to get something for the simmer of hope that his future still offers.
The Mets have the starting pitching to forgo Wheeler or Syndergaard, but they have to make an important decision over the next six weeks: trade Wheeler, or extend him.