When asked if he thought about the possibility that he was making his last start at Citi Field on Tuesday night, Zack Wheeler was honest. He told reporters, “It crossed my mind” after completing a seven-inning, two-run performance against the San Diego Padres.
Wheeler is enjoying his best run of success since missing all of 2015 and 2016 following Tommy John Surgery. Since June 1, he’s posted a 3.50 ERA, a 3.33 FIP, and a 1.17 WHIP in 64.1 innings spanning 10 starts. In that stretch, he’s lasted at least six innings eight times, and he’s completed at least seven innings five times, with opponents hitting just .228 with a .607 OPS against him.
In the process, he has lowered his ERA from 5.40 to 4.33. On the season, he has a career-best 8.5% walk rate to go along with a solid 22.5% strikeout rate and a 1.4 bWAR. He is on pace to make 30 starts and could surpass his career-high of 185.2 innings.
Wheeler’s velocity has also been impressive across the board, especially with his fastball. His four-seam fastball—which he uses 50 percent of the time—is averaging 97.04 miles per hour since June 1, which is a full MPH faster than his career average. He is also displaying better command, as he has thrown 65 percent of his pitches for strikes. It’s still too soon to tell if Wheeler, who was drafted sixth overall in 2009, has finally put it all together and regained his form following the surgery, but the signs have certainly been encouraging.
With the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline approaching and a lack of dependable starting pitchers on the market, teams have shown interest in Wheeler and there is a strong possibility that the Mets will move him. There are plenty of arguments to be made for trading him. Wheeler could garner an enticing return since he’s under control through the 2019 season, and the Mets have shown little interest in signing their starting pitchers to extensions, at least at the moment. If he keeps pitching effectively, it’s possible he could pitch himself out of the team’s price range, in which case it makes sense to deal him now in order to maximize on his value, which is likely at an all-time high.
The above arguments make sense, but an equally compelling case could be made for the team to hold on to Wheeler and to keep their young rotation together for 2019. For starters, John Ricco has explicitly stated that the Mets are not undergoing a full rebuild and are looking to contend next year. While it remains to be seen if they will allocate the funds necessary to fix the team and, more importantly, spend those funds on the right players, dealing any of the four pitchers would contradict that message. The Mets are easily a better team with Wheeler in the rotation when he’s pitching like he has been lately.
It is also hard to imagine the Mets getting equal value in any Wheeler trade. The return the team got for trading Jeurys Familia was almost universally panned, and it’s hard to put faith in this front office group to acquire enough talent to justify dealing a young, talented starting pitcher who is under control for one more season. While the front office has set the bar high in terms of an asking price for either Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, they should follow a similar approach for Wheeler. If they’re not getting prospects with high ceilings who project to be solid major leaguers, then it makes more sense to hold on to Wheeler.
Trading Wheeler also creates a hole in the rotation which will need to be filled heading into next year. The Mets are highly unlikely to go after Dallas Keuchel, who headlines the upcoming starting pitching free agent class, or Clayton Kershaw, who has the option to opt out of his current contract, and the remaining veteran options like James Shields or J.A. Happ are not going to generate much excitement or offer significant improvement.
There is a chance Seth Lugo can step into the rotation in Wheeler’s place, but the team seems dedicated to keeping him in the bullpen, where he has excelled this season. The Triple-A options are not especially inspiring, although Corey Oswalt has performed admirably at the major league level. But the Mets would need to see more from Oswalt in order to award him a rotation spot going into 2019.
The best option for this team remains to build around the remnants of their young starting pitchers and allocate their expenses to improve other facets of the team. Along with Wheeler, Steven Matz has put together a nice season after a disastrous April. Not much needs to be said about deGrom, who is a front-runner for the National League Cy Young Award. Syndergaard, when healthy, has been great and gives the Mets a formidable one-two punch.
If the Mets are set to receive a top-five prospect from another team’s system along with another good piece or two, then they should absolutely consider a trade. But if the return is mid-level prospects who project as fringe players, it makes no sense to trade Wheeler, especially when he’s starting to piece things together.
Wheeler came over in the Carlos Beltran trade and was the first of the Mets’ five big starters to break through in the major leagues. He showed a lot of promise in 2013 and 2014, and when paired with Matt Harvey, he offered the first look at a potentially bright future. It’s hard to believe that run started five years ago, but it would be unfortunate to have to part with him when he’s pitching his best. It would be great to see him finish out his time in New York and finally fulfill the promise and potential he displayed when he first joined the team five years ago.