PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Mets camp has become a meritocracy. The team made that clear at the beginning of Spring Training, when manager Mickey Callaway vowed to take the worthiest 25 players north with him. If the message did not resonate then, it must now: the Mets on Saturday optioned Zack Wheeler to Minor League camp, telling Seth Lugo he has made the rotation in Wheeler's place.
"You take it kind of hard, just because you're so used to being up here," Wheeler said. "I sort of saw it coming, but I was hoping that it wouldn't. It kind of is a surprise, but at the same time, I really haven't done that much to help my cause."
Those moves also mean starter Jason Vargas will begin the year on the 10-day disabled list, while infielder Phillip Evans will likely make the club on the basis of his strong spring (barring an 11th-hour change in Michael Conforto's status).
If not a shock to Wheeler, the decision was impactful, stamping out the prospect of the Mets' dream starting five -- Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz and Wheeler -- making a rotation turn for the first time. That possibility hinged mostly on Wheeler; finally healthy, he could not seize his chance, posting an 8.10 ERA with 22 hits in 10 Grapefruit League innings.
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"He had an opportunity here to make this team, and to be blunt, he just didn't get it done," Mets pitching coach Dave Eiland said.
Entering camp, Wheeler appeared to be on the outside of the Mets' rotation bubble looking in. But when Vargas fractured a bone in his glove hand in mid-March, it made Wheeler a sudden favorite to make the team. At the time, he owned a 1.80 Grapefruit League ERA.
Wheeler posted a 14.40 mark the rest of the way.
"We all feel, and I think even Wheeler feels, that there's some things to work on," Callaway said.
As if to punctuate the decision, Wheeler served up seven hits Thursday in his final Grapefruit League outing, opening the door for Lugo -- who was only scheduled to pitch a single inning -- to fire four shutout innings in relief of him. The Mets considered it an audition-on-the-fly for Lugo, who won the fifth starter's job on the basis of a 2.87 ERA in 15 2/3 innings.
Still, Lugo's stay in the rotation may be brief. Vargas is scheduled to throw a bullpen session on Sunday, and he could return in time for his second rotation turn April 9 in Miami.
At that point, Lugo is likely to shift to the bullpen, knocking another reliever or Evans back to the Minors. Conforto, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, is also due back in early-to-mid-April, potentially crowding the roster. But as the Mets know, such issues tend to take care of themselves as injuries pop up during the regular season.
Eventually, Wheeler can return as well -- but he first must prove himself, four years removed from his last successful big league campaign. After going 11-11 with a 3.54 ERA as a 24-year-old, Wheeler underwent Tommy John surgery in March 2015, taking two full seasons to recover. Returning last April, Wheeler made 17 starts, producing 5.21 ERA before a stress fracture in his pitching arm ended his season.
Now, Wheeler faces a round of adversity as he looks to make good on his once-immense potential.
"Going back down to the Minor Leagues isn't fun and isn't easy," Wheeler said. "But I'm going to go down there and get my work done, and prove that I can pitch up here and be successful like I have been in the past."