The last time Zack Wheeler was on the mound as a Met, he struck out more than a batter per inning and ran a 3.54 FIP over 185 innings. There were certainly warts, including his walk rate of nearly four per nine innings, but Wheeler’s stuff was electric and he was a new hope for Mets fans to enjoy while Matt Harvey recovered from Tommy John surgery. Unfortunately, that exciting young arm hasn’t been on the mound for two seasons, as Wheeler dealt with his own Tommy John surgery in 2015 and a litany of setbacks in 2016.
Finally healthy enough to return to a more normal schedule this spring, Wheeler has been a bit of a mixed bag, as is to be expected after a two-year layoff. His results have been poor, with an 8.59 ERA in 7.1 innings pitched and more walks than strikeouts, but Wheeler’s fastball velocity has been in the mid-to-high-90s, and his secondaries have looked strong at times, as well. While he still needs to harness his stuff more consistently, the pieces that once made Wheeler an elite prospect are still there.
Of course, Wheeler is not the only starter to struggle to return from injury this spring, as Matt Harvey has also dealt with poor results and reduced velocity. Nevertheless, Wheeler has been by far the more uneven of the two, is coming back from a much longer layoff, and will also be under a much stricter innings limit this season—reportedly somewhere between the low 100s and 125. Management has also expressed concern about bringing Wheeler back as a reliever after such a long injury absence. All these factors will likely lead to Wheeler being left off the Opening Day roster, instead remaining in extended spring training to continue regaining feel for his stuff and confidence on the mound.
But there is a role for Wheeler on the 2017 Mets if he can stay healthy. Pitchers break, and recent history indicates that there will probably be at least one opening in the Mets’ rotation in a couple months. Even if every elbow and shoulder holds up, the Mets could utilize a six-man rotation to help keep innings counts low ahead of a playoff run, which would offer another avenue for Wheeler to rejoin the big league team as a starter. Hopefully we’ll get to see the original second head of the Mets’ pitching monster return to form on the major league mound before too long.