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Zack Wheeler Represents the Future of the New York Mets

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COMMENTARY | If only Zack Wheeler could play the outfield and hit a little. Then, he'd be a lock to join the New York Mets when they head north for opening day.

Instead, Wheeler is among baseball's best pitching prospects, and the Mets have plans for him to be one of the anchors of their starting rotation for years to come. However, he'll likely have to wait for his chance to pitch on the big stage.

That's because right now the Mets' starting rotation is pretty much set. Johan Santana, Jonathon Niese, Matt Harvey, Shaun Marcum, and Dillon Gee comprise what is, on paper at least, a pretty good starting rotation. Wheeler will most likely start the season at Triple-A Las Vegas, and then at some point this year he'll make his debut in the majors.

When he was moved up to the Mets' Triple-A Buffalo squad last year, Wheeler went 2-2 with a 3.27 earned run average. He was 10-6 at Double-A Binghamton with a 3.26 ERA. That's a combined 12-8 with 148 strikeouts in 149 innings pitched. Not a bad year for the 22-year-old.

Mets manager Terry Collins has said that Wheeler will have to prove himself at Triple-A this year. It's the same approach the organization took a year ago with Harvey, who was impressive in spring training, but was sent to the minors until he was called up in July. Harvey ended up making 10 starts for the Mets, pitched to a 2.73 ERA with 70 strikeouts in 59 1/3 innings, and now has a spot in the Mets' rotation. That seems to be the plan for Wheeler in 2013.

Contrary to public opinion, the Mets are going about things the right way. They're building with pitching, and when the time is right -- next offseason -- they'll have the money to spend on free agents who are worth the years and dollars they'll have to pay.

Sure, their outfield is one of the worst in all of baseball, but that could change if, say, Lucas Duda emerges as a consistent power hitter, if Kirk Nieuwenhuis cuts down on the strikeouts, or if Marlon Byrd ends up being the player he was a couple years ago. In any event, the Mets will be active in the free-agent market next offseason, no doubt in pursuit of one or two quality outfielders.

Right now it's about the pitching, and a rotation that features Wheeler and Harvey at the top might not be that far off. This spring, the Mets have done a very smart thing by putting Wheeler's locker in between the lockers of Santana and Harvey. This gives Wheeler the opportunity to learn from experience. The experience of a two-time Cy Young Award winner, and the experience of a 23-year-old who last year was in the position Wheeler finds himself in this spring.

The Mets acquired Wheeler when they traded Carlos Beltran to the San Francisco Giants in 2011. The Giants know a thing or two about pitching. It wasn't too long ago that people said the same thing about the Mets.

In the mid-1980s, a young Dwight Gooden brought electricity, and credibility, to Shea Stadium upon his arrival in 1984. For a few years, there wasn't a better pitcher in all of baseball. Gooden helped lead the Mets to the 1986 World Series title.

Almost three decades later, a similar story may be unfolding at Citi Field.

Charles Costello has followed the Mets closely since the rookie years of Darryl Strawberry (1983) and Dwight Gooden (1984). He was a beat reporter assigned to cover the Mets during the 1997 and 1998 seasons.

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