In his most recent spring training outing, Zack Wheeler opened some eyes by sitting in the mid-90s with his fastball and touching 97. Having missed all of the past two seasons after undergoing Tommy John surgery shortly before the 2015 season began, Wheeler probably has to do more than reach that velocity to reestablish himself. But the fact that he was able to throw that hard at this point in spring training is encouraging.
Assuming he doesn’t experience any setbacks and remains generally healthy otherwise, Wheeler could be a useful piece for the Mets over the course of the season. Based on what general manager Sandy Alderson has said, though, he’d most likely be looking at a cap of 125 innings in an effort to keep his arm healthy. Earlier in spring training, pitching coach Dan Warthen had suggested a cap over but a little closer to 100 innings.
Even if Wheeler is in his very best form, it wouldn’t be ideal to burn up his innings before September and October. It would also be a waste to use those innings in the minors, assuming—again, and it’s still no guarantee—that everything is going smoothly health-wise and he’s pitching well.
So let’s assume Wheeler and the Mets are comfortable with capping his workload at the number Alderson mentioned and try to map out a plan that keeps Wheeler pitching and puts him on track to be capable of starting games late in the season, which would at worst give the Mets one more viable option for very important games.
The bullpen phase
There’s simply no way for Wheeler to get through an entire season at 125 innings or less without spending some of it in a relief role. There are twenty-five baseball weeks in the season, lumping in the weekend after the All-Star break with the rest of the regular Monday-through-Sunday week that follows. That makes for some simple math: Wheeler can’t average more than five innings pitched per week over the course of the year.
To leave enough innings in the tank for a potential starting role later in the season, Wheeler would probably need to pitch no more than 80 of his 125 innings before the last month-and-a-half of the regular season. As a member of the bullpen, that wouldn’t be too hard to do, as even the Mets’ hardest-working relievers last year—Jeurys Familia, Addison Reed, and Hansel Robles—each threw 77.2 innings as relievers over the course of the entire season.
For what it’s worth, Wheeler himself expressed concern about pitching out of the bullpen early in spring training, in part because he might end up being stuck there and in part because he’s not familiar with pitching in games out of the bullpen. So keeping him comfortable might be a tactical challenge if he weren’t ever available to pitch back-to-back games, but it wouldn’t be impossible.
The first eight weeks
To get started, Wheeler could pitch three innings per week on average, which would leave him at 24 innings pitched when the Mets wrap up their Memorial Day weekend series in Pittsburgh. How those three-inning weeks break down would probably have a lot to do with Wheeler’s comfort level pitching games in quick succession. If he could make that adjustment, he could pitch in three games per week, one inning at a time.
If not, either some or all of his outings could be of the two-inning variety, which would space things out in between appearances but be a little more challenging to realistically work into the general bullpen plan. As tricky as it might seem, it’s not really uncommon for the Mets’ sixth or seventh relief pitcher to pitch that often or less in a given week.
The next eight weeks
From there, the Mets aim for an average of four innings per week. The usage pattern probably wouldn’t change much, looking similar to the plan in the first two months of the season with either slightly longer or more frequent appearances. That would leave him at 32 innings for this eight-week stretch and at a total of 56 innings for the season through the team’s series at home against the Athletics that ends on July 23. That leaves 69 innings on the table the rest of the way.
The piggyback phase
This might be the most challenging or unrealistic way of deploying Wheeler, as major league teams almost never use a traditional piggyback, a game in which two starting pitchers are schedule to pitch and, ideally, cover the entire game.
Pitching every fifth day, Wheeler could start at three innings in his first couple piggyback appearances and then ramp it up to four over his next five. That’s a total of seven turns through the rotation in that role, the last of which would come in late August, and 26 innings pitched. Add it all up, and he’d be at 82 innings in total for the season with five weeks to go.
This part of the plan definitely seems like the hardest one to strictly implement at the major league level and would be a lot easier to stick to if the Mets had a significant lead in the division by mid-August. It would accomplish the goal of getting Wheeler stretched out so that he could start, but it would be understandable if the Mets sent him down to the minors to accomplish that goal while keeping everyone else’s schedule regular. If done at the major league level, though, the goal of limiting Wheeler’s workload could also have the benefit of giving the Mets’ other starting pitchers a bit of a lightened load if he’s matched up with different pitchers each time through the rotation.
With that 125-inning cap in mind, that leaves 43 innings over the final five weeks of the season, an average just over eight-and-a-half innings per week. That would leave Wheeler fully capable of starting games in either a five- or six-man rotation, the latter of which would be much easier to deploy with expanded rosters and a large bullpen. If everyone’s healthy, Wheeler wouldn’t have to bump anyone else from the rotation, and if not, he’d obviously be filling a need in the rotation.
Let’s say Wheeler makes six starts in September at six innings apiece. With all of his previous works, that puts him at 118 innings at the end of the regular season.
There’s plenty of assumption along the way here, the biggest part of which is that Wheeler himself remains healthy. But if that is the case, the Mets should do everything they can to make sure he’s still available when the games matter the most. Whether or not his innings cap would go up if the Mets return to the playoffs for the third-straight season remains to be seen. If that wouldn’t be the case, the Mets could delay the transition from regular relief pitching to getting stretched out and, as a result, reduce the number of starts he makes in September.
If Wheeler looks great early in the year and one of the Mets’ other starting pitchers goes down, it would be awfully tempting to throw him into the rotation right away. But if they can stick to a plan that aims to have him starting at the end of the year, they might be better off in the end.