FORT MYERS, Fla. - For much of the past year, the Mets treated the right elbow of prized pitcher Zack Wheeler like a time bomb that was wired to explode.
The Mets heard the ticking. It came in the form of Wheeler's need to skip some bullpen sessions between starts last season, and then later in the lingering pain that prompted an offseason filled with MRI exams.
So when the countdown hit zero Monday and it was revealed that Wheeler's fully torn ligament almost certainly will require Tommy John surgery, there was little sense of true surprise.
"We had been forewarned by the doctors that his elbow was a concern, and that it was going to have to be managed over the course of this season,'' general manager Sandy Alderson said.
Wheeler, 24, would face a post-surgery rehab of at least a year. For now, Dillon Gee appears to be the front-runner to fill his spot in the rotation.
"I feel terrible for Zack. Especially with the way he finished last year, to have this happen this time, I'm sure he's really down about it,'' Terry Collins said. "We're going to have to move on.''
The news came after the Mets spent the previous three days downplaying the pain in Wheeler's elbow, which they labeled as tendinitis that the team managed all of last season. The Mets had prepared to do the same this year until an MRI exam Saturday revealed a torn ligament.
"It wasn't clear that the ligament was involved at that time,'' Alderson said. "But we understood that we were going to have to manage his medical condition over the course of the season. So when he complained of the elbow pain, it wasn't a surprise to us.''
Recently, details have trickled out about a 2014 season spent managing pain. Even with an elbow that flared up periodically, Wheeler made all 32 of his scheduled starts and logged a career-high 1851/3 innings.
Of pitchers who were 24 or younger as of last July 1, only Madison Bumgarner threw more pitches -- 3,372 in the regular season to Wheeler's 3,308. And within that group, none logged more than Wheeler's 13 outings of at least 110 pitches.
Although research into the cause of Tommy John surgery has yet to yield definitive conclusions, there is some belief that high-velocity pitchers appear to be at more risk. Wheeler's fastball averaged 95 mph, fifth fastest in all of baseball.
"When the elbow is involved, anything can happen,'' said Alderson, who defended the organization's handling of Wheeler, a first-round draft pick acquired in the 2011 trade of Carlos Beltran to the Giants.
Alderson said the Mets saw no need to significantly change Wheeler's workload last year, nor did they feel the need to do so this season, even with uncertainty about his elbow.
Said Alderson: "How he was used was a result of whatever information we had at the time. The approach that we took was, I think, reflective of our overall understanding of risk and probability and so forth.''
Wheeler had two MRI exams in the offseason. Although neither showed ligament damage, he underwent platelet-rich plasma (PRP) treatment.
When Wheeler arrived at camp, Collins said he put him on a normal throwing regimen, content that exams had showed no damage. But when he complained of pain in a larger portion of his elbow, the Mets sent him for another MRI.
This one revealed a full tear.
"Thanks for everybody's support and kind words,'' Wheeler tweeted Monday. "It's greatly appreciated. Long road ahead.''
Alderson sounded resigned to surgery for Wheeler, calling pain management "simply unsustainable.''
"It's a blow, but at the same time, we knew there would be a lot of uncertainty surrounding Zack and his elbow over the course of the season,'' Alderson said. "We're obviously not happy he won't be with us. But I think if there's a silver lining, it's that we now have some certainty.''
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