DALLAS, Ga. - Lifted pickup trucks dominate the roadways here like minivans on the Meadowbrook. Fitted with specialized suspensions and custom wheels, they tower over the traffic in this wooded exurb more than an hour northwest of Atlanta.
Yet Zack Wheeler's bright red Dodge stands out. If the roar of the engine fails to capture attention, the puff of black exhaust surely will, just as it did this week as he snaked his way through a busy highway. He could spend all day just riding around in his truck, high above it all, listening to everything from '60s crooners to '90s rappers.
Evidence from a recent ride remains in the form of an empty Chick-fil-A bag wedged into his cupholders.
"I'm a simple guy," said Wheeler, who bought the ride along with a new home shortly after he was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in 2009. "That's all I need."
But in two weeks, the time will come once again for Wheeler to leave the home he shares with his older brother, the one that stands only a few blocks away from where his parents still live. He will arrive in Port St. Lucie for spring training as the top prospect in the Mets' organization, the embodiment of a franchise rebuilding plan orchestrated by general manager Sandy Alderson.
To the 22-year-old Wheeler, the main prize in the Carlos Beltran deal, that future can't come fast enough.
"I want to prove myself," Wheeler said this week. "I want to go out there, try to make the choice difficult for them, just compete. I mean, wherever they want to send me, that's fine. I want to go compete wherever that is. I'm going to try to get better wherever they send me. I don't care."
Alderson said on WFAN last week that Wheeler is unlikely to begin the season on the big-league team. His probable destination appears to be Triple-A Las Vegas, where he could be throwing the first pitch of a new season to catching prospect Travis d'Arnaud, providing a glimpse of the future.
Said Alderson: "Hopefully, the near future."
Wheeler likes his chances
Even if Wheeler begins the year in the minors, the 2013 season may be nothing more than a countdown for his arrival, just as 2012 proved to be in the case of fellow pitching prospect Matt Harvey. Still, Wheeler wants nothing more than the chance to defy the odds, even if his chances are slim.
"I just laugh because I think I've got a chance," said Wheeler, who cringes at those who question if he has enough experience to make his jump soon. "If I come out of spring training and I'm dealing . . . "
For now, that must remain a hypothetical. But what is well established is what the Mets already see in Wheeler, which is a commodity so precious that he was essentially off limits in any trade discussions this offseason. He only raised his profile by striking out 148 batters in 149 innings mostly at Double-A Binghamton.
Shortly after Wheeler capped a season in which he went 12-8 with a 3.26 ERA -- winding up the year with six starts at Triple-A Buffalo -- Mets vice president of scouting and player development Paul DePodesta raved about the tools he first spotted when Wheeler was in high school.
"He had them when he was 18 and one of the top picks in the country," DePodesta said at the time. "The difference is just consistency."
Occasional bouts with command remain an issue. Nevertheless, with a blazing fastball that touches the high 90s and a nasty curveball that can leave batters helpless, Wheeler has only validated growing hype.
Yet he insists he's put those expectations in proper context, a task made easier by watching how Harvey has handled similar pressures.
"There's really nothing to it for me," Wheeler said. "I've just got one job. That's to go out there and pitch, perform. I got drafted for a reason. That's my job for a reason. Just go out there and pitch. If the fans want to think of me highly, that's fine. If they want to have hope in me, I guess that's fine."
Preparing for next step
Wheeler has worked to justify that hope, his offseason spent enjoying the comforts of home, even as he prepares to leave it. During his down time, he spends the days playing video games in his basement, which he recently transformed into a three-screen man cave. He likes to fish in a lake down the street from his home and take in a few basketball games -- his first love.
But he remains mindful of work. He still throws three times a week at East Paulding High School, where he flourished as a senior, then promptly bought a new scoreboard with part of the $3.3 million the Giants gave him as the sixth overall draft pick. He also treks about 45 minutes for workouts at a training center frequented by the likes of Jason Heyward of the Atlanta Braves.
It is usually while in the weight room, during grueling workouts, that Wheeler allows himself to envision his future.
Just as it is from behind the wheel of his truck, the view of what lies ahead is perfectly clear.
Wheeler remembers visiting Citi Field at the end of last season for an awards ceremony. He had gone to Turner Field plenty of times as a kid, but what he saw in New York seemed different. He came away thinking about how "everything is tall and big," and how the effect was amplified when the sun went down and the lights came on.
"You've sort of got to let yourself get to that point so you can remind yourself that's where you want to be," Wheeler said. "You just don't want to be stuck in the minor leagues and be like a top prospect forever. You want to get to that point and be able to stay up there. You sort of want to envision the good part of it so you can work a little bit harder."
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