Thoughts about Zack Wheeler in Buffalo

RHP Zack Wheeler, the Mets top prospect made his fourth start for AAA Buffalo in the teams’ 4-2 loss to the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees on Tuesday. Wheeler did not allow a hit until Eduardo Nunez fisted a single over the right side of the infield in the fourth inning. His line: 5.1 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 3 K. He threw 58% of his pitches (47 of 80) for strikes. Even though his pitch count was not particularly high, I thought he tired in the fifth and sixth innings (when he allowed three runs); his location was not as crisp.

Early in the game, he was doing a nice job keeping his fastball, which was mid-90s, down. He mixed in a solid changeup on his second pitch of the game, in a spot on the edge, to get a swing and miss. He went back to the pitch regularly enough to get weak contact and some groundballs with it early, but he relied really heavily on the gas. The slider was there, but not as dominating an offering as he has had at other times. Kosuke Fukudome lined his final pitch of the afternoon, a big loopy curveball, into leftfield.  “I was throwing a lot of fastballs,” he said after the game, “I felt confident with it today, down in the zone, in and out.”

Bottom line: he’s a great pitching prospect, but he’s not big league ready as a starter, just at Matt Harvey was not big league ready in April, 2012. He must improve his command, and become more comfortable throwing his off-speed stuff early in counts and for strikes rather just as chase pitches late in counts. Wheeler’s 1.9 K/BB ratio (19 K/10 BB) in 21 innings in AAA, indicate clearly that he must continue to refine his location. Wheeler threw 116 innings last year and is now sitting at 137 innings for the year. With two more starts in AAA, he should come near 150 innings.At that point, right after Labor Day, the Mets could call him up to the big leagues, or shut him down. He will need to be added to the team’s 40-man roster over the winter to protect him from the Rule 5 draft.

There might be some developmental advantage in seeing big league hitters out of the Mets’ bullpen this year to give him something to think about before returning to AAA to begin 2013. That gain would have to be balanced against whatever strain the Mets think a handful of extra innings would do to him physically.

The concept here is there would be no impact on Mets’ finances. Generally, third year players are eligible for arbitration, but a select group, those with the most service time, the Super Twos are eligible a year early. Given a 183 day MLB season, the cutoff the last two years has been two years and 46 days this year and two years and 134 days last year. So, without any time in the majors this year, Wheeler would need to spend at least 50-60 days in the minors next year to avoid Super Two status. I think he clearly needs that development time. Any big league roster time in 2012 would add to his minor league stay in 2013 to avoid Super Two status.

I guess I err on the side of thinking that baseball players get better when they play baseball. So, if it were up to me, I’d have Zack Wheeler make a few big league appearances out of the Mets’ bullpen in September. It will only ease his transition when he returns for good in 2013. The argument against is that 2013 is more valuable than a lost 2012, and the baseball will be more beneficial for him in AAA in 2013.

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