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Mets' Wheeler set for first start since '15

Righty out to prove he's healthy, work toward Opening Day roster spot
MLB.com @AnthonyDiComo

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- While plenty of eyes will be on First Data Field on Friday for Tim Tebow's second start in a Grapefruit League game, a player far more likely to play for the Mets this season -- or ever -- will be debuting two hours up the road. For the first time in more than two years, Zack Wheeler is set to start a big league game against the Braves at Disney World. The game, which will get underway at 1:05 p.m. ET, will air on Gameday Audio.

The past two seasons have been fraught with setbacks for Wheeler, who underwent Tommy John surgery in March 2015, had a second procedure to remove an undissolved stitch the following year, then battled elbow and forearm issues for much of last summer.

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PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- While plenty of eyes will be on First Data Field on Friday for Tim Tebow's second start in a Grapefruit League game, a player far more likely to play for the Mets this season -- or ever -- will be debuting two hours up the road. For the first time in more than two years, Zack Wheeler is set to start a big league game against the Braves at Disney World. The game, which will get underway at 1:05 p.m. ET, will air on Gameday Audio.

The past two seasons have been fraught with setbacks for Wheeler, who underwent Tommy John surgery in March 2015, had a second procedure to remove an undissolved stitch the following year, then battled elbow and forearm issues for much of last summer.

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"It's just always been something that's kept him from making a huge step forward," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "Now he's back, and we've got to be smart enough to know that it's going to take a little time to get him back to where he was two years ago."

Wheeler's Grapefruit League debut will last a maximum of two innings and about 30 pitches, and Collins, who is staying back to watch Matt Harvey start the other half of the Mets' split squad at Port St. Lucie, won't be there to see it. But it nonetheless marks a significant step for Wheeler, who went 11-11 with a 3.54 ERA as a 24-year-old in 2014.

"I'm kind of nervous about, like, [pitching] in the stretch with a guy on first base, balking," Wheeler said. "You feel like you haven't played the game in 10 years."

Those jitters should pass quickly, though even if Wheeler thrives this spring, he may not make the Opening Day roster. The Mets plan to treat him carefully, as they did last month when his elbow barked following a routine bullpen session. Considering pitching coach Dan Warthen's estimation that Wheeler will not throw more than around 110 innings this summer, the team could choose to start him in extended spring training simply to dampen that total. But the Mets could also place Wheeler in the Opening Day bullpen, or select him over Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo for the rotation.

For now, Wheeler simply must prove that he is truly healthy for the first time in two years.

"I'm glad he's getting back out there," Collins said. "He'll do fine if he just keeps himself under control, doesn't try to overthrow, makes some pitches, finds that release point that's working. He's had some good bullpen sessions. I'm just hoping he doesn't go out there and try to do too much in his first time out in two years."

• The Mets sent Noah Syndergaard home from camp early Thursday because he was experiencing flu-like symptoms. Syndergaard, Lucas Duda and Travis d'Arnaud have all battled sickness in recent days.

Anthony DiComo has covered the Mets for MLB.com since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo and Facebook, and listen to his podcast.

New York Mets, Zack Wheeler