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The Mets probably won’t get a great return in a trade for Zack Wheeler

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The Mets weren’t ever going to get a lot for Wheeler, but his hitting the IL last week makes it even harder to move him.

MLB: New York Mets at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

With the Mets sitting well out of playoff position as we inch closer to the July 31 trade deadline, the team will almost certainly be looking to sell off anything they can. Given that GM Brodie Van Wagenen has said that the team will likely hold on to Noah Syndergaard, the Mets’ best trade asset at this year’s deadline is clearly Zack Wheeler.

With his contract set to expire at the end of this season, Wheeler has not pitched up to his 2018 career-best season. While the 29-year-old veteran has had some stretches this year where he has looked like a true top of the rotation starter, those have been surrounded by games like his most recent start on July 7 against the Phillies, where he allowed six runs in five innings. That adds up to a 4.69 ERA on the season, though a 3.66 FIP and 3.85 xFIP indicate that Wheeler may be getting victimized by the Mets’ horrid team defense. Wheeler hasn’t lost his stuff, and potential buyers know Wheeler’s true talent level. Several contending teams in need of starting pitching could do far worse than adding Wheeler to the mix.

That said, Wheeler’s current IL stint complicates matters quite a bit. Wheeler was placed on the IL last week week with shoulder fatigue. While he could return this week, it obviously doesn’t help the team’s designs on moving him for a meaningful return. Other teams can also see that Wheeler has thrown the fourth-most pitches per game of any starting pitcher in baseball, and his shoulder fatigue may be a result of that—and could be a sign of a pitcher wearing down.

So while other teams can look at Wheeler, see his stuff, and think that they can still turn him into an ace, how much would they be willing to overlook the issues and pay for the potential if he’s just a two-month rental?

Over the last two or three years, teams have stopped overpaying for rental players at the deadline. A few years ago, when prospects like Gleyber Torres, Addison Russell, and Michael Fulmer were being swapped for rentals, it would be easier to see a team willing to take a chance and sending some interesting prospects the Mets’ way for Wheeler. Unfortunately, those days appear to be over. The returns for rental starters are not what they used to be. Here’s a look at all of the trades for starting pitchers on expiring contracts over the last two trade deadlines:

2017 Trade Deadline

Starting pitcher Traded to From For
Starting pitcher Traded to From For
Jaime Garcia Twins Braves RHP Huascar Ynoa
Jeremy Hellickson Orioles Phillies OF Hyun-soo Kim, LHP Garrett Cleavinger
Jaime Garcia Yankees Twins RHP Zack Littell, LHP Dietrich Enns
Francisco Liriano Astros Blue Jays OF Nori Aoki, OF Teoscar Hernandez
Yu Darvish Dodgers Rangers 2B/OF Willie Calhoun, RHP A.J. Alexy, SS Brendon Davis

None of these deals are a good comp for Wheeler, though Darvish is the closest to Wheeler here based on stuff. Of the prospects traded for Darvish, Willie Calhoun was a top-100 prospect at the time who actually wound up in some top-50 lists by season’s end, though he has not panned out at the major league level yet. Even though Darvish had an ERA over four at the time of the trade, he was an established ace for several years at this point, so expecting a prospect like Calhoun for Wheeler would be very optimistic.

2018 Trade Deadline

Starting pitcher Traded to From For
Starting pitcher Traded to From For
Nathan Eovaldi Red Sox Rays LHP Jalen Beeks
J.A. Happ Yankees Blue Jays OF Billy McKinney, INF Brandon Drury
Lance Lynn Yankees Twins IF Tyler Austin, SP Luis Rijo

While Eovaldi isn’t a great comp for Wheeler, either, he may closest of anyone in these two deadlines, given that they are both starters around the same age with similar prospect pedigrees and injury histories. Eovaldi had a 3.80 ERA with a 4.00 FIP and 3.55 xFIP in 12 starts at the time of the trade. The Rays sent him to the Red Sox for Jalen Beeks, a low-ceiling starter that has had decent success in relief by being the “bulk” guy behind the Rays’ openers this year. But he hasn’t exactly been a big difference maker, either.

That said, Eovaldi was just returning from his Tommy John surgery last year while Wheeler is over two years removed from his return from Tommy John, and Wheeler has pitched better than Eovaldi in their respective careers. You would think the Mets could get more than that for Wheeler, but with the shoulder fatigue and IL stint, it’s tough to say.

It’s nearly impossible to pinpoint exactly the kind of return the Mets could get for Wheeler without a sense of what teams around baseball actually think of him, and without knowing for sure how serious the shoulder fatigue issue is. Based on recent history, you could assume that the most likely scenario would be a return somewhere between the Eovaldi and Darvish trades, but probably closer to the Eovaldi return. If Wheeler is healthy by the deadline, the Mets probably won’t get a top-100 prospect or big difference-maker in return, but they might still be able to get a useful, major league-ready piece who can contribute in 2020 if they play their cards right.