COMMENTARY | Zack Wheeler barely had a chance to pitch to opposing teams this spring. The 22-year-old was limited to just two innings against the Washington Nationals--walking one, with no hits, while striking out two--and was then briskly reassigned.
This wasn't some callous, whimsical move, however. The New York Mets knew going into spring training that their top organizational prospect would not make the major-league team; unleashing him on the league in the hot Florida and Arizona sun was not in the cards.
Yet, even though Wheeler's time with the club was brief, he made a lot of impressions with the regulars.
"The ball comes out of hands so easy," said first baseman Ike Davis. "You can just tell when someone has good stuff. Just seeing him pitch for the first time, you can tell that it's there."
Justin Turner, who was one of three Mets hitters to actually face Wheeler in a live session, concurred.
"He's got some late life on his fastball," Turner remarked. "It kind of jumps on you ... like that late explosion that [Stephen] Strasburg has on his fastball."
Wheeler's three impressive seasons in the minor leagues backs up his future teammates' sentiments. In 322 2/3 innings, the power pitcher has collected a cumulative 3.49 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, and 2.33 K/BB. The Georgia-native made it as far as Triple-A in 2012, hurling a 3.27 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, and 1.94 K/BB at the advanced level.
But even though Wheeler might have the "stuff" to compete at the major-league level soon, there are still some serious hurdles ahead before the pitcher can make his mark.
First and foremost, Wheeler, who will start the 2013 season at Triple-A, must improve his command. The young hurler has taken noticeable strides from his 2010-self, when he walked batters at a 5.8 BB/9 clip. But despite posting a combined 3.6 BB/9 in 2012, Wheeler's control sunk to a 4.4 BB/9 once he was promoted to Triple-A.
In addition, Wheeler needs to work on developing his changeup. To date, the right-handed pitcher possesses a dynamite fastball that sits in the mid-90s--and touches the high-90s--and keeps hitters off-balanced with a 12-6 breaking pitch. But while a two-pitch arsenal might suffice in the minors, few "ace" caliber starting pitchers can survive without a second out-pitch in the show.
According to Baseball Prospect Nation:
"[Wheeler's changeup] improved some in 2011 but [it] still slows his arm at times, giving the pitch away. [Wheeler] can be too firm with it [too], getting it into the 85-86 mph range rather than 82-83 mph where the pitch was more successful. ... Scouts are skeptical if it will ever be an average pitch."
Wheeler's current inability to limit walks and harness his much-needed out-pitch could be the difference between him becoming the ace everyone now expects him to be and a middle-rotation option. But if all goes well, Wheeler will likely get the call midseason, and would also be a favorite to start 2014 alongside other farmhands Matt Harvey and Jon Niese in the Mets' rotation. Like Harvey in the second half of 2012, it's possible Wheeler too will make his mark in orange and blue as soon as he joins the major-league squad.
Ben Berkon is a freelance sports, humor, and tech writer/blogger from New York City. Berkon's work has been featured on The Huffington Post, The Onion, Contently, Medium, and Rising Apple, and he also manages The Beanball and Blah Blah Berkon, his personal stat-heavy baseball and humor blogs, respectively. He's [unfortunately] been a Mets follower his entire life.
Follow him at @BenBerkon.
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