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Wheeler's struggles put Mets in predicament

Right-hander allows 5 runs vs. Nats; Vargas returns to Mets camp
MLB.com @AnthonyDiComo

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Before Zack Wheeler took the mound Thursday for his final Grapefruit League start, Mets manager Mickey Callaway said his roster spot "is not all riding on this one game." The Mets wanted Wheeler to pitch well. They did not necessarily need him to.

Still, if Wheeler was on the roster bubble, he did nothing to help himself by allowing five runs -- three earned -- on seven hits in two innings, needing 58 pitches to record six outs in the Mets' 12-5 win over the Nationals. Three defensive errors hurt Wheeler, as did a hit through a defensive shift. But Wheeler also allowed enough hard contact to bloat his spring ERA to 8.10.

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Before Zack Wheeler took the mound Thursday for his final Grapefruit League start, Mets manager Mickey Callaway said his roster spot "is not all riding on this one game." The Mets wanted Wheeler to pitch well. They did not necessarily need him to.

Still, if Wheeler was on the roster bubble, he did nothing to help himself by allowing five runs -- three earned -- on seven hits in two innings, needing 58 pitches to record six outs in the Mets' 12-5 win over the Nationals. Three defensive errors hurt Wheeler, as did a hit through a defensive shift. But Wheeler also allowed enough hard contact to bloat his spring ERA to 8.10.

"I'm highly disappointed," Wheeler said. "I've got to keep my head up, though. I'm feeling healthy. I'm feeling good. But maybe I'm just off a little mechanically, and hopefully I can get that figured out quick."

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Making matters worse for Wheeler was what happened next. Originally scheduled to pitch a single inning in relief, Seth Lugo lasted four, striking out five batters to lower his Grapefruit League ERA to 2.87. Afterward, Callaway confirmed that Lugo is still a rotation candidate, capable of stretching out over 80 pitches early next week.

"We have some big decisions to make," Callaway said.

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In the coming days, the Mets will figure out what to do with Wheeler. After Jason Vargas fractured a bone in his glove hand, necessitating surgery, it seemed likely that Wheeler would begin the regular season in the rotation. He has since allowed 14 hits and 10 runs in five innings, clouding his future.

The Mets could place Wheeler in the bullpen -- an option he has resisted in the past, but one he said he was open to following Thursday's outing. They could keep Wheeler in Florida in extended spring training, trying to straighten him out. They could option him to Triple-A Las Vegas. Or they could proceed with Wheeler in the rotation, hoping his raw abilities -- his fastball sat at 95 mph in Thursday's start -- allow him to improve in short order.

"It's not my call," Wheeler said. "Other guys have been pitching great. I'm trying to do the best I can."

Video: WSH@NYM: Wheeler on tough outing against Nationals

As for Lugo, who has never made an Opening Day roster, the right-hander would be happy simply to be at Citi Field on March 29.

"A full season in the bigs, that's what everybody wants as a ballplayer," Lugo said.

Video: WSH@NYM: Lugo on two-run single and his curveball

Injury updates
The bulk of the Mets' rotation decision depends on Vargas, who returned to camp two days after surgery. Vargas plans to meet Friday with a hand specialist, who will give him an updated sense of his timetable -- specifically when he might be able to get his stitches removed.

In the meantime, Vargas participated in long toss Thursday at Mets camp, but did not wear a glove or receive throws back to him. He is still sporting a heavy cast on his right hand and won't try to catch a baseball "for a while."

"Hopefully I don't forget how to catch," Vargas quipped.

In addition to reaching the point where he can catch a baseball, Vargas must stretch out to roughly 90 pitches before the Mets will consider using him in a big league game. He may have enough time to do that by April 4, the first time the Mets will need a fifth starter. But he also may require one or two rotation turns to heal completely.

"I'll do what's best for the team," Vargas said. "I'm not going to go out there and try and jeopardize anything for one start. But at the same time, if I can go out there and I feel like there shouldn't be any reason why I couldn't pitch, then I'm going to go out there. It's just waiting for that timetable to see how everything kind of heals up."

Video: DiComo on impact of Vargas' injury on Mets' rotation

Camp battles
With another scoreless inning Thursday, rookie Jacob Rhame lowered his Grapefruit League ERA to 3.60, to go along with 10 strikeouts and one walk in 10 innings. Rhame's body of work should all but assure him an Opening Day bullpen spot, with just three official spring games remaining.

"It makes me happy. It makes me feel like I've done something right," Rhame said when asked about his status. "I just hope to take it from there and keep it going."

Up next
Rather than use Noah Syndergaard against the Cardinals, whom he'll face on Opening Day, the Mets will start Minor Leaguer Drew Gagnon in Friday's game against St. Louis. Michael Conforto will make his Grapefruit League debut as the Mets' designated hitter. Paul Sewald, Hansel Robles and Rhame, all of whom are vying for spots at the back of New York's bullpen, are also scheduled to pitch in the 1:10 p.m. ET game at First Data Field. The game can be watched live on MLB.TV.

Anthony DiComo has covered the Mets for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo, Instagram and Facebook.

New York Mets, Jason Vargas, Zack Wheeler