John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
With September dominance, including Sunday night's gem of a start against the Dodgers, Zack Wheeler is making it awfully difficult for the Mets to let him walk out the door as a free agent.
Which prompts a couple of obvious questions:
1) Is it too late to make an offer that would keep him from testing the market?
Realistically, yes, because with Wheeler being this close he'd probably only sign a new deal if the Mets blew him away with a $100 million-plus offer of some type, and at that price they might as well see what other teams are willing to pay him.
2) Should the Mets pay top dollar to bring him back?
There is room for debate here because, as we've seen, Wheeler's inconsistency can be as exasperating as his brilliance can be spellbinding. And if last year's superb second half of the season didn't lead to an elite 2019 season, there's no reason to think the next few years, as he turns 30 next May, will get him over that hump.
Still, his inability to turn his eye-popping talent into greatness shouldn't be reason to underestimate Wheeler's value either, especially considering the Mets have no home-grown starting pitching of note on the immediate horizon -- and seem to have a tense relationship with Noah Syndergaard that could lead to a trade this winter.
Yes, they have Marcus Stroman for next season, but as an executive from an American League told me on Monday, "There's no way Stroman could dominate that Dodger lineup, with all of those lefthanded bats, the way Wheeler did. And that's not a knock on Stroman. There just aren't a lot of pitchers that have the stuff to do what Wheeler did last night."
Which, of course, is what will make him such a tantalizing option on the free-agent market, especially for analytic-heavy teams that might think some fine-tuning here and there could eliminate some of the inconsistency that has led to Wheeler's 4.09 ERA and several ugly starts this season.
But how much will teams be willing to pay to gamble on his dazzling upside?
To a degree Wheeler has taken some of the risk out of the equation with his durability the last two seasons. After that two-year recovery from Tommy John surgery that bled into a third injury-shortened season, his only blip has been that brief absence in July this season due to shoulder fatigue, and he has done his best pitching since then.
So he is proving he can stay healthy and pitch deep into games even on days when he is mystifyingly hittable: his total of 180.1 innings this season ranks sixth among all National League starters, and in back-to-back seasons he has gotten better and seemingly stronger in the second half.
Last year he was deGrom-like in the second half, pitching to a 1.68 ERA and a spectacular 0.813 WHIP over his final 11 starts, but the Mets were completely out of contention by then, which has to be factored into the equation.
With a lot more on the line this season, Wheeler again has improved in the second half, pitching to a 2.93 ERA, compared to 4.69 in the first half, and significantly reduced the mistake-pitch home runs that killed him in the first half -- giving up only four in 10 starts compared to 16 in his 19 first-half starts.
On the other hand, Wheeler has still given up 66 hits in 61.1 innings, resulting in a less-than-sparkling 1.321 WHIP in the second half, and he's also averaging two and half fewer strikeouts per nine innings in the second half.
Add all that up and the only way to make sense of it may to be simply acknowledge that when Wheeler is on, he can dominate any lineup in baseball, but when his command is off, he often can't limit damage and prevent big innings.
"When his mechanics get a little out of whack he doesn't seem to be able to band-aid his way through a game like a lot of top-of-the-rotation starters," is the way one long-time scout puts it. "His 'A' game is as good as anybody's but the guys that can limit the damage when they don't have their 'A' game are the ones that separate themselves."
"At this point I'm not sure Wheeler will ever be able to do that consistently. But if you're a big-market team that can afford to take the chance on him, that performance against the Dodgers is the kind that makes you want to write a big check. That was special.
"Put it this way: you can't teach that late life he's got on his fastball."
With all of that in mind, Wheeler may be making the cash register ring down the stretch of this season. He has allowed only one run in each of his last four starts, and has been much better lately at pitching out of trouble.
This winter, Wheeler is not going to get Gerrit Cole money, or Stephen Strasburg money if the Nationals' star opts out of his contract, but it appears he'll be in demand on a tier just below that.
Should the Mets be in the mix? That answer could depend largely on their plans for Syndergaard. They've indicated a preference to trade him, and in that case they're going to need more than Steven Matz and Stroman in support of Jacob deGrom if they're serious about trying to win a championship.
Bottom line: If the Mets aren't going to commit long-term to Syndergaard, well, Wheeler reminded them Sunday night just how much they could regret letting him walk.