It might make sense to promote Wheeler -- and sign him to a long-term deal

Zack Wheeler delivers a pitch during a spring

Zack Wheeler delivers a pitch during a spring training workout at Tradition Field. (February 15, 2013) (Credit: Alejandra Villa)

TAMPA, Fla.

The shocking revelation of another shoulder surgery looming for Johan Santana, along with the fragile nature of Shaun Marcum, put the idea of promoting Zack Wheeler back in the spotlight for the Mets this past week.

That question is not going away anytime soon, either. With scouts raving about Wheeler's major-league readiness, offering up Jeremy Hefner or Aaron Laffey at Citi Field is like trying to serve a Big Mac at Shake Shack.

It's still a hamburger, sure, and costs less. But it's kind of a letdown, especially when you know there's something a heck of a lot better.

Before the discussion could get really heated, however, Sandy Alderson squashed any further speculation by announcing that Wheeler flat-out isn't ready to start for the Mets. And really, that's fine. The GM has a staff to help him make that call, and given how important Wheeler is to the Mets' future, it makes no sense to gamble with him as long as a call-up is not in his best interests.

The part of the conversation where the lines get blurry is the matter of service time and preserving an extra year of Wheeler's free agency. The financial benefit to that is obvious. Keeping control of a player is crucial to building a winning organization, and for the Mets, a team with its share of recent money problems, that's doubly true.

Even so, deliberately leaving a player in Triple-A, if only for a month or two, just for the sole purpose of delaying his free agency or eligibility for arbitration is not a smart practice.

Alderson has said that's not the case with Wheeler, and the Mets aren't alone in having to deal with this type of situation.

But for any team to purposely hurt its chances to win right away -- from the first week of the regular season -- because of what it might cost them a few seasons later sends a mixed message to everyone, including the fans supposedly paying to watch what they believe is the most competitive product that can be put on the field.

Take it from a small-market team with big expectations, the Tampa Bay Rays, who have three playoff appearances in the past five years despite playing in the powerful AL East and having a payroll that has passed $60 million only three times, maxing out at $72 million in 2010.

"We're trying to win games,'' Rays general manager Andrew Friedman said, "so we're not really looking out four or five or six years from now in that the world could completely change by then in ways that we can't foresee.''

Friedman faces a Wheeler-type situation with his own top prospect, Wil Myers, a power-hitting outfielder who would help a Rays lineup in need of some punch. But Myers, like Wheeler, was demoted to start the season at Triple-A, where the only suspense left for either one will be how a call-up a few months from now affects their "Super Two'' arbitration status.

According to the collective-bargaining agreement, players with more than three years of service time but less than six years are eligible for salary arbitration. The "Super Two'' designation is for players with less than three years but at least 86 days of service time the previous year who rank in the top 22 percent of players that fall into that class. The 22 percent is up from 17 percent in 2011, when the new CBA changed the rule after that season.

An additional year of arbitration sets up a player for a series of four annual pay raises, rather than three, before free agency, so it does make him more expensive over the shorter term. That also could make a team more proactive in getting a multiple-year contract done, to buy option years and potential free agency.

Which brings us back to Wheeler. If a pitcher of his caliber can be a difference-maker now and help the Mets win immediately and give the impression that Sandy Alderson is not mailing it in this season, there is a compelling argument to start him in Flushing.

If Wheeler indeed proves to be the second coming of Dwight Gooden, Alderson can get to work in the not-too-distant future on a long-term contract that makes sense for both sides.

When the Mets first signed David Wright to an extension in August 2006, they bought out three years of arbitration and four years of potential free agency with what became (with the option) a seven-year, $71-million contract.

Last April, the Mets gave Jon Niese, who still was a season away from arbitration, a five-year, $25-million extension with two option years that could push the total guaranteed value to $46 million.

And look what the Giants just did with Buster Posey, wiping out three arbitration years and five more of free agency in giving him an eight-year, $167-million extension at age 26.

It's all about cost certainty, and teams seem to be striving for that sooner rather than later these days. As Friedman suggested, it's impossible to know exactly what baseball's landscape is going to look like, financial or otherwise, a few years from now. But cash in hand is always the best negotiating tool, and if Wheeler is as good as everyone predicts he will be, the Mets surely will be promoting him very soon -- and most likely signing him not too long after that.

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