Feb 3 | 12:00PM
Mets RHP Zack Wheeler is 100 percent healthy for the first time in years, he told SiriusXM's MLB Network Radio on Thursday.
"I want to be a starting pitcher, but this season I may have to throw out of the pen to keep my innings down," he explained. "I know they're looking out for me."
Jan 26 | 12:40PM
"I am a starter," Wheeler said by phone. "I don't think I'm a bullpen guy."
Wheeler, who had Tommy John surgery in March of 2015, was shut down in early-September after being examined by Dr. James Andrews and diagnosed with a mild flexor strain in his pitching arm.
In early-December, Mets GM Sandy Alderson said Wheeler could start this season in the bullpen in an effort to ease him back in to pitching, plus conserve his innings throughout the season.
"We're trying to think expansively where he may fit," Alderson explained. "We might have to be careful. It's all hypothetical, but I don't see a reason to eliminate the possibility."
Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler (45) during spring training at Tradition Field. (Brad Barr)
In addition to the flexor strain, Wheeler's return to action was also delayed in 2016 after having an undissolved stitch surgically removed. He also had an anti-inflammatory injection to treat nerve pain.
Wheeler last pitched in the majors for the Mets in 2014, when he had a 3.54 ERA and 1.32 WHIP. He made one rehab appearance with St. Lucie last August before he was shut down for the season.
"If it's sort of what works out best innings-wise and all that kind of stuff, then I might have to do it this year," he said. "It'd be fun coming in in those type of situations and seeing what kind of competitiveness that I have in the late innings of games. That would be kind of fun. But like I said, I still want to be a starter."
In terms of his talent and what to expect from Wheeler in 2017, it's difficult to know how he truly fits in until we see him throw the baseball this month in Florida. So, Alderson is wise to leave all options on the table and I'm glad Zack is at least open to it. Because, the fact is, despite his immense talent, Wheeler has had Tommy John surgery, injections, muscle strains, setbacks, and has made just one rehab start since we last saw him at Citi Field during 2014. So, it would be unfair and unrealistic to expect him to hit spring training and immediately be ready to start every five days.
The best-case scenario for him should be to supplement the bullpen through April and May, after which he'd go to Triple-A and start working back up to be in the rotation during the second half of the season, which should make him fresh and feeling strong for a pennant race and -- hopefully -- postseason baseball.
Basically, while he might play a meaningful role this year, 2017 should be looked at as a baby-step season for him, during which he crawls a bit and gets his bearings before returning to a full-time spot in the rotation in 2018...