PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Zack Wheeler doesn’t want to be that guy — the guy fans view as a liability because of his health. Or the guy who gets compared to fine china or a Fabergé egg: fragile.
After all, that was never who Wheeler was before. Before the Tommy John surgery, and the mild flexor strain, and the stress reaction in his pitching arm, the 27-year-old righthander viewed himself as healthy, solid, dependable. “I always made my starts in years past,” he said Sunday at First Data Field. “I really haven’t had that many problems, just a little hiccup these last couple of years.”
Granted, that’s one very long hiccup. But after reporting to spring training early, Wheeler is determined to fight for the fifth spot in the Mets’ rotation and pitch a full season of major-league baseball. He is so determined that he started a throwing regimen about a week before Christmas, on manager Mickey Callaway’s recommendation. He even spent six months injecting himself with prescription Forteo, a pharmaceutical typically used to battle osteoporosis. It’s supposed to help bone strength and density, and maybe prevent things like that stress fracture that helped to end his season last July 22.
Forteo does list some mild side effects on its website, such as leg cramps, joint pain, dizziness or nausea, but Wheeler said he hasn’t suffered any.
“I’m feeling good. I’m feeling nice, strong and healthy,” he said before explaining his decision to use the injections. “Erik Goeddel, on our team last year, he did the injections when he had the same problem and he said they helped out tremendously, so I said, why not? Just do it. It won’t hurt anything.”
Wheeler, who made 17 starts last season, also began working with a new trainer — “newer-age stuff,” he said — and has a goal to make at least 30 starts this year. In his only full season as a Met, 2014, he started 32 games, going 11-11 with a 3.54 ERA and striking out 187 in 185 1⁄3 innings. But he did not pitch in the majors in 2015 and was limited to one minor-league inning in 2016.
“Just being healthy, that’s the biggest thing,” he said. “You can’t really help [whether or not you’re] healthy but you want to do everything to prevent [injury]. That’s what I was doing this past offseason. I changed up my workout routine, I started eating a little bit healthier and did those extra shots. Everything I can do to be out there, I’m going to do.”
This year, he said, is the first time he really had an offseason throwing program — one of the many little tweaks made by Callaway and pitching coach Dave Eiland. “My arm reacted well to it,” he said. “’I’m healthy and strong right now and I think I’ll sit down with Dave a little later on and sort of figure out everything in the last couple weeks.”
And though it does appear Wheeler will be the fifth starter, it’s not something he can really worry about now. He’s preparing as if he’s a starter, he said, despite the small chance he could start the year in the bullpen. And despite a rough season last year — he was 3-7 with a 5.21 ERA — he insists he was “happy where I was last year.’’
“Before my arm trouble started creeping up on me, I felt great — happy and excited to be out there and pitching well and going out there every fifth day,’’ Wheeler said, “and that’s when it sneaked up on me and derailed my season.“
2015 — Before the season, Zack Wheeler is diagnosed with a torn UCL and undergoes Tommy John surgery.
2016 — Wheeler’s recovery from Tommy John surgery takes longer than expected and he begins the season on the disabled list. In August, after beginning his rehab assignment, he is diagnosed with a mild flexor strain. He eventually is shut down for the season.
June 2017 — Wheeler goes on the 10-day disabled list with biceps tendinitis.
July 2017 — Wheeler is diagnosed with a stress reaction in his pitching arm, an injury that would end his season.