David Lennon has been a staff writer for Newsday since 1991, when he started covering New York City
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
Watching Zack Wheeler make his Grapefruit League debut Saturday for the Mets felt like being handed a Christmas present on Sept. 10, then having your parents snatch it away and stick it in a locked Plexiglas case on the dining room table.
Sure, it's fun to look at, but it's torture, too. And knowing that Wheeler, in all likelihood, is earmarked to start the season with Triple-A Las Vegas doesn't make these Mets -- or their lame-duck manager -- feel psyched about their chances.
One American League scout among the dozen or so in attendance Saturday raved about the club's top pitching prospect. In the same conversation, the scout scanned the Mets' probable Opening Day lineup and labeled them a 65-win team.
But Wheeler? A No. 1 or 2 starter, without question.
"He's going to be fine," the scout said. "He'll go to Vegas, come up in June and then carve himself up some hitters."
By then, the Mets already may be in pieces. Deep down, manager Terry Collins must know that, and it's probably why his postgame enthusiasm for Wheeler's performance was somewhat muted.
As Collins said, Wheeler showed up as advertised: with a mid-90s fastball that topped out at 96 mph, a biting slider and the need to further develop a third-best pitch, which is either a big-bending curve or a changeup. The Mets could not have expected much more in Wheeler's first time out.
He entered to start the third inning, allowing one hit (a single by Chris Snyder) and a walk with two strikeouts in two innings. The strikeouts both were swinging, by Tyler Moore and Chad Tracy to close the third. Nineteen of his 30 pitches were strikes.
"When the command of that fastball is on," Collins said, "you can't stop guys with that ability."
What the Mets are doing now is bringing that ability along at a slow and steady pace, which is exactly what they should be doing with this sort of elite prospect.
It can't be easy for a team in their situation. With Johan Santana delayed by shoulder fatigue, casting doubt on his readiness for Opening Day, the Mets are going to need another starter, and seeing Wheeler every fifth day during the next five weeks is going to be awfully tempting.
But in putting together this roster, the Mets have made it clear that their focus remains on 2014, when principal owner Fred Wilpon says he will spend money again, presumably to fill some of their gaping outfield holes. In the meantime, everyone will await the arrival of Wheeler and catcher Travis d'Arnaud at some point this season with the hope that the situation in Flushing is, well, not hopeless.
Rushing Wheeler, or even nudging him before a prudent schedule, won't do much good for anyone, and the blowback from a failed launch would only compound the Mets' problems. As much as Wheeler served as an SNY ratings-grabber on a chilly afternoon in New York, the Mets realize this tease will have to go on for a while longer, extending to Vegas, where Wheeler seems slotted to begin the season.
"Is it etched in stone? No," Collins said. "But it's pretty close."
When Wheeler trotted in from the bullpen, if Collins had excused himself to go inside his office and watch the NFL combine or something, I wouldn't have blamed him. If anyone had mixed feelings about Saturday's performance, it was the manager, whose future in Flushing could ride on how the Mets do before the All-Star break.
For Wheeler, though, there's no rush. The hardest thing he had to do was relax. "I just tried to take a few deep breaths every once in a while," he said. "It was just a couple innings of facing hitters to me."
That's all this is at the moment. Practice. Exercise. But Wheeler already has everyone imagining the day when it all counts, when the score matters, and he's at the front of the rotation, along with Matt Harvey, maybe Jon Niese and whatever young pitchers are next through the pipeline.
The Mets aren't there yet. For now, keep dreaming.