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Wheeler earns spot in Mets' rotation

March 30, 2017

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- In the end, the Mets did not want to subject Zack Wheeler to another slog of endless mornings at their Spring Training complex, wondering when he might return to the big leagues. In the end, Wheeler was healthy. He was throwing 97 mph. And that

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- In the end, the Mets did not want to subject Zack Wheeler to another slog of endless mornings at their Spring Training complex, wondering when he might return to the big leagues. In the end, Wheeler was healthy. He was throwing 97 mph. And that was enough for the Mets.
The team announced Thursday that Wheeler, more than 30 months after undergoing Tommy John surgery, will be part of their Opening Day rotation. Wheeler will pitch the fourth game of the season, April 7 against the Marlins at Citi Field.
"It's been a long road," Wheeler said. "I'm here and I'm healthy, and I want to pitch. And that's what I'm about to be able to do."
Although Wheeler finished 1-2 with a 5.11 ERA in Spring Training, he impressed Mets officials with the quality of his pitches. In particular, Wheeler's fastball reached 97 mph, resting in the mid-90s as he blanked the Marlins over five innings of his final Grapefruit League outing. Wheeler offered the temptation of higher upside than Seth Lugo, who was also competing for the fifth-starter job.
"It's been a long trek for him," general manager Sandy Alderson said. "We felt that if he was kind of on an uptick physically, that emotionally and mentally it would be a real positive for him to be able to begin the season, and not just be relegated to Port St. Lucie again. So he's feeling good and we feel good about it."
The counterargument revolved around Wheeler's innings limit, which Alderson initially set at approximately 125. But if he weren't pitching in the big leagues, Wheeler would be expending those innings anyway in extended spring camp. And in describing the club's decision-making process Thursday, Alderson redefined Wheeler's limit as fluid.
"We just think we need to test him," manager Terry Collins said, noting that the Mets will initially hold Wheeler to five or six innings per start. "We're not really worried about innings right now, to be honest. If he gets guys out, he'll pitch."
A former top prospect, Wheeler thrived from 2013-14, ironing out some early inconsistencies to go 18-16 with a 3.50 ERA from age 23-24. But in March 2015, he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, necessitating surgery. The following season brought a litany of setbacks, including a second operation to remove an undissolved stitch from the elbow.
As recently as February, Wheeler skipped a bullpen session due to an elbow flare-up. But he recovered from that in time to pitch in four Grapefruit League games, demonstrating marked improvement from the first to the last.
After his initial outing, Wheeler said he felt like he was pitching in big league games for the first time in his life. It is a sensation, he admitted Thursday, he is sure to feel again when he climbs atop Citi Field's mound for the first time since 2014.
"I'm probably going to be a little nervous," Wheeler said. "But probably a little more adrenaline than nerves. I think it will go well. … The road that I've been down, I've been out of the game for two years now. I'm just happy to be healthy and back pitching at the big league level."

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