TORONTO — The Mets hired Mickey Callaway and Dave Eiland, reputed pitching gurus, last winter with the aim of molding their many blocks of pitching clay. For years, the club had these homegrown potential studs, but for years, the potential too often remained just that.
A half-season into the Callaway-Eiland era, the rotation advancement has been a success, perhaps the only area of the Mets’ roster that has lived up to expectations.
Their greatest victories in that arena are not Jacob deGrom, who has stepped up his game but whose Cy Young Award candidacy is not altogether surprising; nor Noah Syndergaard, who was OK but hasn’t pitched since May 25; nor Matt Harvey, who is long gone.
Instead, it’s been the two hurlers with a lesser pedigree and more health issues: righthander Zack Wheeler and lefthander Steven Matz, whose recent successes have turned their names into buzzy subjects of trade rumors at a time of year when there is way more noise than substance.
Wheeler had another impressive showing Tuesday against the Blue Jays: 6 1⁄3 innings, two runs in the Mets’ 8-6 loss to the Blue Jays. His ERA is down to 4.36, its lowest point since April, a month he began in the rotation for Triple-A Las Vegas.
After dominating for the first three innings — nine up, nine down — Wheeler struggled in the fourth (24 pitches) and fifth (29 pitches), though Toronto came away with only one run. Curtis Granderson’s RBI double in the fifth snapped Wheeler’s 12-inning scoreless streak.
The other run against Wheeler came in the seventh, which he began at 95 pitches. Randal Grichuk singled to right and reached third when the ball skipped past Jose Bautista for a two-base error. Grichuk scored when Anthony Swarzak (6.28 ERA) retired one of his four batters. When Robert Gsellman allowed Yangervis Solarte a tying three-run home run moments later, it cost Wheeler what would have been his first win since April 29.
Wheeler finished with three hits and three walks allowed, striking out five. He has lasted at least six innings in eight of his past nine starts. (The exception: 5 2⁄3 against the Braves on June 12.)
“He’s done a great job,” Callaway said Tuesday afternoon. “Dave and Zack have worked really hard on making some adjustments in his mentality, the way he goes about his business on the mound. It’s really paying off for him and he’s really sticking with it. I think he’s seeing the benefits of it.”
Wheeler’s improvement, much like that of Matz (2.92 ERA since the start of May), raises the question: Should the Mets look to trade him? The interim GM triumvirate — assistant GM John Ricco and special assistants to the GM J.P. Ricciardi and Omar Minaya — are open to moving anyone for the right package. Neither is the Mets’ most obvious trade candidate; that honor goes to their players on expiring contracts: Jeurys Familia and Asdrubal Cabrera, and perhaps Jose Bautista, Devin Mesoraco and Jerry Blevins.
And for the same reason Wheeler and Matz would be attractive to their other teams — their team control beyond this season — they remain important pieces to the Mets. A source said Tuesday, before Wheeler’s start, that the Mets hadn’t received many serious inquiries about his availability, though the Mets and the rest of the league are still very much in the feeling-out stage of trade-deadline season.
While teams’ chitchat picks up, Wheeler — with an assist to the Mets’ pitching gurus — makes himself more desirable with every start. He’s penciled in for two more before the All-Star break, the unofficial pickup of trade talks.
Wheeler knows how this goes. He’s been traded before, to the Mets from the Giants for Carlos Beltran in 2011, and almost traded again, to the Brewers in the nixed Carlos Gomez deal in 2015. Those experiences make dealing with rumors easier, he said.
“Your name is going to get brought up, so you got to put it in the backseat and just keep riding,” Wheeler said. “If it happens, it happens. Obviously, I want to be here. But sometimes, you can’t help what’s out of your control.”