JUPITER, Fla. — Long on talent and short on on-field production for years, Zack Wheeler reached another level last summer, posting a 1.59 ERA in his last 10 starts and consistently pitching into the late innings.
Now, due to reach free agency after this season in which the Mets expect to contend for the playoffs, Wheeler faces a new question: Can he stay near that level?
The Mets already know what to expect from National League Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, whose problem isn’t effectiveness (2.93 career ERA) but staying on the field (he missed half of the past two seasons).
Wheeler joining that duo as a true upper-tier starter would give the Mets a vicious big three to match — or top — the Nationals’ Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, an offseason addition.
“Everybody wants to be at the highest peak there is,” Wheeler said. “We just happen to have two guys who are basically already there on our team. It’s my goal to get there. Last year, I think I found that. Hopefully I can continue.”
As far as manager Mickey Callaway is concerned, Wheeler already is there.
“I wouldn’t classify his [final two months] as a hot streak,” Callaway said. “I think he did it consistently for quite some time. The stuff allows him to be there. He’s definitely there.”
The Grapefruit League signs have been positive. Wheeler held the Cardinals to two hits and no walks in 5 1⁄3 innings Thursday, striking out four in a 1-1 tie. With two spring training starts to go, he is about where he wants to be, though he is still working on sharpening his breaking balls and pitching inside. He said he felt “terrible” his first two innings Thursday before he “coasted” for the final three-plus.
A muted reaction from Callaway spoke volumes.
“That’s a standard Zack Wheeler outing now,” he said. “He understands who he can be, who he is and what he’s all about. We see that in the weight room. We see it in the clubhouse. And we see it on the mound. He continues to do a great job for us.”
The outing brought Wheeler’s spring training ERA down to 2.25. DeGrom (3.75), Syndergaard (1.88) and Jason Vargas (1.08) also have been sharp. (Steven Matz, at 5.19, has been less so.)
Those numbers aren’t particularly meaningful at this time of year, but it’s better than the alternative.
“I don’t think spring training really matters all that much, but you want to start trending in that direction as we get closer to the season,” Wheeler said. “Everybody is looking good right now, so it’s definitely a plus . . . Hopefully everybody can stay healthy and pitch like we’re capable. We can be pretty dangerous.”
The Mets’ hypothetical playoff contention relies in part on that fivesome performing well, which, yes, has been true every season since the club went to the World Series in 2015.
Callaway said they already are sending a message to other teams.
“You’re going to have to be on top of your game to score some runs against them, and they’re going to go at you,” he said. “We have what it takes to be the best staff in baseball. These guys got it in them.”