JUPITER, Fla. — The Mets informed Zack Wheeler on Saturday that he did not make the team and will begin the season at Triple-A Las Vegas.
The demotion was a bitter pill for Wheeler, who hasn’t been a minor-leaguer since 2013. But an 8.10 spring training ERA and the late emergence of Seth Lugo as the winner of the No. 5 rotation spot means Wheeler is getting a trip to Vegas for the foreseeable future.
“You take it kind of hard because you’re so used to being up here,” Wheeler said. “But it gives me a chance to go down there and fine-tune some things and work on some things that I need to work on to get back up here and be consistent.”
Lugo thrust himself into the conversation with four shutout innings in relief of Wheeler on Thursday. Jason Vargas will start the season on the disabled list after having surgery on Tuesday to remove part of a bone in his right (non-throwing) hand. Vargas, who was felled by a stomach issue on Friday, rejoined the team on Saturday, but is limited to playing catch until his hand heals.
Wheeler, 27, missed 2015 and 2016 after Tommy John surgery. He returned last year and went 3-7 with a 5.21 ERA in 17 starts before he was shut down to rest his arm.
“He had an opportunity here to make this team, and to be blunt, he just didn’t get it done,” pitching coach Dave Eiland said. “He knows what he needs to do and he needs to go do it. When he goes and he does that and we’re satisfied with what we see, then he’ll be back. If we have Zack Wheeler on this team pitching to the capabilities that he’s able to pitch to, we’re a better team.”
While there was talk at the beginning of camp that Wheeler could start the season in the bullpen, it’s something he’s never done and showed little interest in. After the Mets signed Vargas to a two-year, $16-million contract last month, Wheeler dismissed the notion of moving to the pen.
“I’m just here to be a starting pitcher,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been and that’s what I’m always going to be. When I’m healthy, I know I’m just as good as anybody out there.”
Wheeler backtracked the next day, saying he’d do whatever he could to help the team. Wheeler said there was no discussion of a bullpen move on Saturday, just the news that he would start the season at Triple-A.
“I sort of saw it coming, but I was hoping that it wouldn’t,” Wheeler said. “It kind of is a surprise, but at the same time I haven’t done that much to help my cause. Going back down to the minor leagues isn’t fun and it isn’t easy. But it’s OK. Take it like a professional, go down there and get my work done and prove I can pitch up here and be successful like I have in the past. I really haven’t pitched that much in three years.”
Wheeler’s demotion means the Mets will not start the season with a “dream” homegrown rotation of hard-throwers including Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz, Matt Harvey and Wheeler. Those five have never been healthy and in the majors at the same time. Wheeler, though, said he’s healthy now.
“That was the biggest key for me,” Wheeler said. “Getting through the spring training healthy.”
Lugo, 28, made his major-league debut for the Mets in 2016 and is 12-7 with a 3.92 ERA in 36 games (26 starts) over the past two seasons. He’ll likely just be keeping the rotation seat warm for Vargas, but it’s a nice moment for the former 34th-round pick in the 2011 draft.
Lugo has a 2.87 spring training ERA in seven games (one start). The Mets had been grooming him for a bullpen role, so he will start in a minor-league exhibition game on Tuesday to get his pitch count up.