John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
PORT ST. LUCIE - At his locker, Zack Wheeler is talking about his impending free agency, but don't get the wrong idea. He might be the hungriest guy in the room, having been forced to watch at home in Georgia, recovering from Tommy John surgery, when the Mets made their surprise run to the 2015 World Series.
He wasn't even back for the late-season surge in 2016 that netted a wild-card berth.
"I've never won, so I really want to win," Wheeler was saying. "And I want to do it with these guys. Our pitching has been talked up for so long now, I just want to do it and have some fun. Winning in New York, you can't beat it."
And then? Wheeler smiled. Even as players around the majors seem to be rushing to sign team-friendly deals for fear of the current state of free agency, the 28-year old right-hander is confident, coming off his breakthrough season in 2018, that he won't have a problem getting paid.
"Honestly, the starting pitching market is pretty steady," he said. "If I have a good year, my agent told me it's going to be me and Gerrit Cole, the only guys under 30 years old (at that level).
"That only helps me, especially with the trend that's going on, and everybody that's over 30 is considered old. I'll be 29 as a free agent, and I feel like I'll be ok."
Wheeler made a point of saying how much he enjoys being a Met, but noted that the team hasn't approached his agent about an extension, and as a result, he essentially said that every day they wait raises the price it would take to keep him from hitting free agency.
In other words, he's not interested in signing any sort of discount deal.
"I'm pretty close to free agency so obviously it would have to be right on my end," was the way he put it. "You're this close, this is what you work for, to get to free agency."
Wheeler said he can understand why the Mets haven't approached him to this point, that they want to see him go out and back up his spectacular second half from last season, when he went 9-1 with a 1.68 ERA.
"I think they just want to see where the team's at, at a certain point in the year, and see how I'm doing," Wheeler said. "But at that point, you're only getting closer to free agency, and it would be a lot easier for me to be like, 'eh, whatever.'
"Don't get me wrong, I'd love to stay here, but it's gotta be right. I hate saying that. I'm not that type of person, but it's just the way it is right now."
You'd think the Mets would have at least reached out to Wheeler and his agent during the offseason to talk about what it would take to lock him up. They may know they'll have Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard for two and three more seasons, respectively, but it's not like they have many, if any, highly touted pitching prospects knocking on the door.
So maybe they don't quite believe what they saw from Wheeler last season, when he finally reached the potential that prompted the Giants to take him with the sixth pick of the 2009 draft -- before trading him to Mets for Carlos Beltran in 2011.
After all, the righthander missed two full seasons after his Tommy John surgery and pitched only 86 innings in 2017 before being shut down due to a stress fracture in his pitching arm.
Wheeler, however, is convinced that what he did last year was simply a matter of finally being healthy as well as learning how to command his 96-97 mph fastball, in part by pitching inside more at the behest of pitching coach Dave Eiland.
"It's not comfortable for a hitter getting in there facing 95 or whatever in the first place," Wheeler said. "If you have a little bulldog in you, throwing inside allows you to control the at-bat, control the strike zone, and control how the hitter feels in there.
"You come inside and you're making a statement: like, 'hey, don't get comfortable in there.'
"I saw the difference it made. I got swings and misses on my slider even when it wasn't good, because hitters were so conscious of the inside fastball. And I had more strikes looking than ever in my career because of it.
"Usually hitters were geared up for the fastball and they would at least foul tip it. That's always been why my pitch count went through the roof. But because you're standing guys up with fastballs inside, they're not leaning over, looking for that fastball away. I like pitching that way. I always liked having that bulldog attitude out there."
All of which led to Wheeler's dominance last season, and a new level of confidence he says is here to stay.
Obviously the Mets prefer to see it again for themselves before talking about a contract extension. But by then it might be too late.