NEW YORK – As his teammates shined in 2015 in their unexpected run to the World Series, Zack Wheeler could only watch.
Wheeler missed that season, and all of the 2016 campaign, after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He’s the only member of the former Five Aces rotation – which featured Wheeler, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Matt Harvey – to have never pitched in a World Series game, let alone a playoff game.
That’s why the chance to pitch in the postseason – an opportunity the New York Mets likely won’t be affording him this year – would mean so much to Wheeler.
“I wish it was here. I want to pitch in big-time games,” Wheeler told Yahoo Sports after Friday’s 6-3 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at Citi Field. “That’s what you want to do. You want to go to the World Series, win the World Series. If it were to happen, and I were to go to a contender and pitch in meaningful games since I missed ‘15 and ‘16, it would be nice to pitch in some meaningful games.”
Before Wheeler can entertain a postseason start, he first had to pass his final showcase Friday night, and the righty did his part.
Wheeler showed no ill effects from his right shoulder impingement that recently sidelined him while holding the Pirates to three runs in 5 1/3 innings.
Now, Wheeler will wait to find out which team he will be pitch for on Aug. 1 after scouts from the Tampa Bay Rays, New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta Braves and Chicago Cubs watched him Friday.
The Mets (48-55) are engaged with teams on several players and have discussed frameworks of deals, but are not close to making a trade, according to a source.
“My guess is just as good as yours,” Wheeler said of possibly being traded.
As questions swirl surrounding whether fellow trade candidates Madison Bumgarner, Marcus Stroman and Mike Minor will land with new teams, it’s possible Wheeler could emerge as the top starter available.
It once seemed a given that Wheeler would be dealt since he’s a veteran in the last year of his contract, but the right shoulder impingement that sidelined him gave teams pause. Opposing teams aren’t going to pay for an injured pitcher.
They want to make sure he’s healthy.
Friday’s start marked Wheeler’s only chance to prove before Wednesday’s deadline that the shoulder injury is no longer holding him back, and for most of his outing, he looked like a postseason difference maker.
His fastball sat 97-98 mph, and Wheeler struck out seven batters. He also induced ground balls, and even the run that scored against him in the third was due to some balls either dropping in or not being fielded by his teammates.
One reason to believe Wheeler will flourish with another team is due to the vast discrepancy between his ERA and his FIP.
Wheeler entered the night with an ERA more than one run higher than his FIP, which indicates he’s been unlucky. The Mets’ defense has cost Wheeler plenty of runs this year since they struggle to field balls and turn double plays.
Wheeler eventually ran out of gas in the sixth inning, allowing three hits, including a two-run homer to Adam Frazier that cut the Mets’ lead to 4-3.
Mets catcher Wilson Ramos said Wheeler threw “really well.”
“We've unfortunately seen this guy really good every time he pitches against us,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “He's got anywhere from three to four plus pitches when he's on. To run that fastball, the high-velocity fastball, the two-seamer back over the inside of the plate to left-handers, or the sinker, the breaking ball, the splitter, the curveball -- all of them play. And he throws them all for strikes.”
Wheeler said he did not consider the possibility it could have been his final outing in a Mets uniform until he exited the game to a nice ovation from the crowd of 33,776.
“I appreciated that from the fans,” Wheeler said. “That’s the only time I thought about it because I was out there concentrating on winning a ball game.”
Wheeler will now wait five days to find out if he’ll have the chance to pitch for a contender, and whether the Mets deal him will be a career-changing moment.
In addition to receiving the chance to make a postseason start, Wheeler would also be free of the qualifying offer, which has hampered the market for players.
Due to the lack of quality free agents in this upcoming class, Wheeler seems poised to receive a solid deal in free agency should there be no qualifying offer attached.
If the Mets don’t like the offers they receive for Wheeler, they do have that option to retain him by offering him the qualifying offer. They could then attempt to trade him again next summer if they flop for a fourth straight season.
The Mets have not yet seriously broached the idea of possibly extending Wheeler, according to a source, which could be a more-cost efficient way to retain him.
The longstanding expectation has been it will be harder to extend Wheeler the closer he gets to becoming a free agent, and he is not expected to take a hometown discount since he’s yet to experience free agency.
“A guy like [Wheeler] is hard to replace,” Mets manager Mickey Callaway said.
One scout high on Wheeler said some of the hesitation in dealing for the 29-year-old is the up-and-down nature of his career.
Wheeler struggled in the first half last season before producing like an ace last year. He’s had some brilliant starts this year to go along with some duds.
“What are you getting? He’s up and down,” the source said. “You just don’t know.”
The Mets could opt to trade another starter, and the odds are rising that they trade Syndergaard. Although one source downplayed the severity of talks, it’s clear the Mets are open to dealing Syndergaard, who is under control through 2021.
Sources expect the Mets would have to be wowed by an offer to pull the trigger since he’s under control through 2021, but a team like the Padres, who are hot after Syndergaard, per sources, have the pieces to make such a deal work.
“My concentration is on doing my job. Whatever happens, happens,” Wheeler said. “You can’t control it.”
If Wheeler’s next start is with a team headed toward October baseball, he finished 40-36 with a 3.89 ERA in 115 career games with the Mets.
He arrived in 2011 when the San Francisco Giants tried to make a push by acquiring rental outfielder Carlos Beltran, and he now could be exiting as that rental piece.
Until that deal happens, Wheeler isn’t ready to reminisce.
“Let’s talk about if that if it happens. You never know what’s going to happen,” Wheeler said. “If we get to that point, we can talk about it.”
Yahoo Sports writers Wallace Matthews, Mike Mazzeo and Gerard Gilberto contributed to this article.
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