NEW YORK -- Ask Zack Wheeler about his offseason plans, and he laughs.
“Couple vacations, getting married,” Wheeler said.
Left unsaid is that other plotline that will dominate Wheeler’s winter. For the first time in his career, Wheeler is set to become a free agent, setting into motion a path that may end his Mets tenure after eight-and-a-half years in the organization.
Heading into his potential final start at 7:10 p.m. ET Thursday at Citi Field (live on MLB.TV), Wheeler insists he isn’t sweating it.
“I wouldn’t say it’s weird,” Wheeler said. “It’s there, thinking about it. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s kind of just my personality, I guess, that it is what it is.”
One of the Mets’ most significant offseason decisions will be whether to extend Wheeler a one-year qualifying offer, which could increase from last year’s value of $17.9 million. Extending one to Wheeler would give the Mets their best chance to retain him, while also guaranteeing Draft pick compensation if he leaves. But it would more than triple what the Mets paid Wheeler this year through arbitration ($5.98 million), eating a chunk out of a 2020 budget that is already heavy by Mets standards.
Wheeler, 29, would not say if he has interest in accepting a qualifying offer. But when asked about the possibility of signing a multi-year contract in free agency, Wheeler admitted: “Hopefully, yeah. Time will tell.”
The best comp for Wheeler’s free agency might be Nathan Eovaldi: a similarly aged hard thrower with a significant injury history, who signed a four-year, $68 million deal with the Red Sox last winter. Unlike Eovaldi, however, Wheeler has been a workhorse the past two seasons, rebounding from Tommy John surgery complications to throw 369 2/3 innings and counting -- 14th most in the Majors over that stretch. In sum, Wheeler has produced a 3.65 ERA with 364 strikeouts since the start of last season.
“I guess you could say I got fixed,” said Wheeler, who missed the entire 2015 and ’16 campaigns due to injury, as well as part of ‘17. “I had a hard time when I came back just because I was still trying to find the finesse part of pitching after having a new arm basically. That part was a little tough.”
A return to health has allowed Wheeler to focus more intently on improvements between starts, which he believes has led to his renaissance. It also may have priced Wheeler out of Flushing, even though the Mets lack starting pitching depth heading into the winter. Given his ceiling as a frontline starter, Wheeler may be the second-best arm on the open market, after only Gerrit Cole. Others available include Madison Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Jake Odorizzi.
If Thursday is indeed Wheeler’s last start in a Mets uniform, he’ll remember both the highs and lows of his tenure.
“I wasn’t really part of the winning teams,” Wheeler said. “I’ve always wanted to win here because I love the crowd and the atmosphere, and because I know what it could be.”
Smith in limbo
Although first baseman Dominic Smith was eligible to come off the injured list on Wednesday, the Mets declined to activate him after members of the training staff watched him work out and take batting practice. Manager Mickey Callaway said the team could activate Smith, who has not played since July 26 due to a stress fracture in his left foot, on Thursday, but he made no guarantees.
Smith, for his part, has repeatedly said that he would like to play again before the end of the season. But activating him would force the Mets to remove someone from their 40-man roster with only a few days left on the baseball calendar.