Aside from a one-inning rehab appearance with the St. Lucie Mets late in the 2016 season, Zack Wheeler hasn’t pitched in a minor league game since 2013. Back then, he was a highly-touted prospect who had been acquired from the San Francisco Giants for Carlos Beltran by Sandy Alderson’s front office way back in 2011.
Wheeler made his big league debut in 2013, too, and things went reasonably well. While he didn’t make that immediate impression that some of the Mets’ other minor league graduations have during this era of the team, he had a respectable 3.42 ERA in 100,0 innings over 17 starts. And his 2014 season was more or less in line with that performance, as he had a 3.52 ERA in 185.1 innings over 32 starts and improved his strikeout and walk rates in the process. Wheeler wasn’t putting up spectacular numbers, but there wasn’t really any doubt that he belonged at the major league level.
Then his elbow gave out, and he required Tommy John surgery. That he missed the 2015 season was not a surprise at all, given the normal recovery time from that procedure. But Wheeler’s recovery knocked him out of major league action for all of 2016, too. And while he was out, he was nearly traded to the Brewers along with Wilmer Flores in a deal that would have brought Carlos Gomez to Queens. The trade-that-wasn’t left the door open for the acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes, and at the time of the non-deal, Wheeler made a point to call tell the Mets he did not want to be traded.
Wheeler made it back to the mound last year. He finished his season with 17 starts, the same number he threw in his rookie campaign. But he tallied 86.1 innings rather than 100.0, his season ended early because of arm issues, and he had a 5.21 ER and 5.03 FIP.
Coming into this year’s spring training, Wheeler seemed to have a good shot at holding down a rotation spot to begin the year—despite the results last year. The Mets hadn’t signed Jason Vargas, and despite reports about injections Wheeler was taking in an attempt to stay healthy, there weren’t any throwing-related symptoms reported that would make you think he wasn’t going to be able to pitch. And throughout spring training, there weren’t any health issues that required him to miss time. And the pitchers competing with him for rotation spots were all ineffective last year, too.
Spring training results aren’t the only factor—and sometimes aren’t a factor at all—when it comes to Opening Day roster decisions. But Wheeler had an 8.10 ERA in his time in Grapefruit League games this year. He lost out to Seth Lugo, who had a 2.87 ERA in his spring training outings, on that rotation spot, and he’ll be trying to pitch well enough in Las Vegas to make it back to the major league roster. Depending on how things go for Lugo, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz, and Jason Vargas, it could either be a short or long while before Wheeler gets that shot.