Zack Wheeler again looked terrific on Sunday, providing further evidence he has clearly turned a physical and psychological corner in his career.
In Sunday's game, he retired 10 straight batters before the D-backs started forcing him to change his gameplan. And he did, which is what has been most impressive about his time on the mound this year. In the end, Wheeler tossed 97 pitches, went six innings, allowed two earned runs and three hits, walked two and struck out eight.
He has a 1.93 ERA in his past three starts. And, in a situation that could make only Jacob deGrom jealous, the Mets are 1-5 during Wheeler's previous five starts, despite his 3.68 ERA.
"I thought (Sunday) was probably the best he's thrown all year in the early innings," manager Mickey Callaway said after the game. "He's attacking, you can tell."
In his previous start, every fastball he threw was more than 98 MPH. He also threw more than one mid-90s MPH slider. Sunday, his fastball hit 99 mph.
"He's an intriguing trade candidate," an NL West team in need of pitching told me. "He's thriving, but there's reason to think he may also finally be someone with value as a high-leverage reliever."
I made this same point last week when discussing how the Mets could keep Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom to keep this season entertaining, yet still try and acquire a few young position players to beef up their farm system.
In Wheeler, the Mets now have a starting pitcher that is 'commanding an inning,' and showing a good good sense of his mechanics and how to repeat his motion.
His big issue this season continues to be how he's handling the first batter of an inning, but that is clearly more about approach than anything physical. The good news is that, for the most part, he's pitched better with runners on base -- especially in close and late games -- than he has with the bases empty. In fact, the higher leverage situation he's in the better he has performed.
Despite his positive start Sunday, his xFIP is in June is still worse than it was in April and May. However, deeper statistics indicate that it's a select few hitters in difficult spots that have burned him. Otherwise, against the other roughly 90 percent of batters he has faced, he's been sensational.
The point is, a smart, well-researched organization would be smart to jump on Wheeler if they are confident in their pitching coach's preparation for how the catcher is going to call the game. Because, if those key hitters in big spots can be - at the very least - neutralized, Wheeler is a gem.
Further adding to his value is that Wheeler will likely earn slightly more than just $2 million through salary arbitration next season, after which he's eligible to be a free agent for the first time in his career. So, a possible team with interest would not only be getting a 28-year-old starting pitcher that has already had Tommy John surgery and elevating his game, they also get a mature young man with less than 500 innings under his belt that is under team control through next season.
MLB insiders tell me up to five to seven established starting pitchers will be available on the trade market this summer, with more than that number of teams looking to add to their staff.
Therefore, based on the above, the same insiders estimate Wheeler can net the Mets another team's top five prospect and either a so-so big-league contributor or an additional lower-level prospect.
Syndergaard and deGrom would obviously return a lot more than Wheeler in a trade. However, they're also the two best pitchers on the team and under contract for two and three more seasons. If the Mets intend to compete for a postseason spot each of the next few years, the Mets are going to need their two aces. Meanwhile, Wheeler will almost certainly not be here after 2019.
In place of Wheeler, Seth Lugo can temporarily replace him in the rotation, where Lugo has a 3.99 ERA and 129 strikeouts and 160 innings during his career.
In the off-season, if the Mets feel they're in need of another arm and/or depth, they can always consider giving a short-term deal to mid-tier pitchers like Adam Ottavino, Lance Lynn, Happ and CC Sabathia. Or, perhaps the organization will be ready to promote and lean on top pitching prospects David Peterson, Justin Dunn or Anthony Kay.
The Mets would be selling high on Wheeler, there is no question about it. This is also an argument to keep him, especially given how much time and resources they have spent getting him to this point. However, for the same reasons to keep him, it means there is probably no better moment to deal him since he and Jeurys Familia may be the team's best shot at acquiring a useful position player.
Matthew Cerrone (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Contact) is lead writer of MetsBlog.com, which he created in 2003. He also hosts the MetsBlog Podcast, which you can subscribe to here. His new book, The New York Mets Fans' Bucket List, details 44 things every Mets fan should experience during their lifetime. To check it out, click here!