About 31/2 months ago, with a division title seemingly within reach, the Mets parted ways with one of their most promising young pitchers. Righthander Zack Wheeler and infielder Wilmer Flores were traded to the Brewers for Carlos Gomez.
The deal fell through, of course, undone by an 11th-hour medical glitch. But the episode proved instructive. Although Wheeler still was recovering from Tommy John surgery, at least one team was prepared to assume the risk of his recovery to obtain a young pitcher with a controllable contract and high-end talent.
Months later, Wheeler remains a member of the Mets, and it appears for now that it will stay that way. Assistant general manager John Ricco insisted at last week's general managers' meetings that the Mets aren't pushing to move the 25-year-old righthander.
But he didn't rule it out, either.
"We're not actively shopping Zack by any stretch," Ricco told Newsday. "But as with the other starters, if something came up that we thought made us better, we're going to talk about it."
Judging by the reaction of rival executives, the Mets could find themselves with plenty to talk about should they dangle any of their dynamic young pitchers. That includes Wheeler, even though he likely won't be ready to pitch in the big leagues until July.
Yankees GM Brian Cashman said it was "not surprising" that the Brewers took a shot with Wheeler last summer, even though he wouldn't be ready to pitch for about a year.
"He's an asset that should intrigue people or interest people, and clearly he does, for good reason," Cashman said of the near-trade in late July. "There's not enough talent in the game. So yeah, he's marked up, he's got a scar from Tommy John, but that shouldn't scare you off."
Wheeler possesses enough upside to make teams weigh taking a chance. Before his injury during spring training, he went 18-17 with a 3.50 ERA in 49 big-league starts. With a mid-90s fastball and a nasty curve, Wheeler racked up the kind of swings-and-misses worthy of a top prospect.
Wheeler, 25, will not be a free agent until 2020 and already has proved that he can pitch in the big leagues. It's a combination that's rarely available on the open market.
"The areas for clubs to access premium talent right now is so limited," Phillies GM Matt Klentak said. "You have draft, international free agency, we've got domestic free agency which is very expensive. Sometimes clubs are willing to take on a little more risk for the upside, even if you know you might end up netting zero."
Such risk-reward calculations have become increasingly prominent in the amateur draft. Pitchers have been taken in the first round even while recovering from Tommy John surgery.
"We're certainly taking more medical risks in recent years than maybe we would have in the past," Pirates GM Neal Huntington said. "Look at the draft at the number of players that have had Tommy John and have been drafted in the first round. We are more tolerant of risk."
Consider the case of righty Brady Aiken. Drafted first overall by the Astros in 2014, he didn't sign and played for IMG Academy's postgraduate team. After one start, he required Tommy John surgery. He still was recovering during the 2015 draft, when the Indians chose him 17th overall.
Indians GM Mike Chernoff said improved tracking of Tommy John cases has led to a clearer understanding of recovery rates. That data has led to more confidence in the kind of risk-reward decisions that front offices routinely have to make.
Said Chernoff: "There's a level of sophistication in the analysis of that data and information just because we're tracking it better."
Armed with more information -- and the constant desire for young, high-upside arms -- Angels GM Billy Eppler can see more teams willing to take similar risks.
"Everybody's measuring risk a little bit differently," Eppler said. "But I think whenever you're dealing with a supply and demand in a marketplace, and that supply's maybe not producing what you want or are expecting, you might look for other avenues and access that risk."
The Mets already have put Wheeler in play once, and it would be easy to assume they would be ready to do so again this offseason. But months later, Ricco said some of the Mets' thinking has shifted.
"The circumstances change when you're fighting for a playoff spot and there's a deal there that you think can put you over the top," Ricco said. "You take us back to July 31st and that's a different leverage point than the offseason."
Another fundamental difference has to do with Wheeler himself. Last summer, he was about a year away from being ready to help the Mets. Now it will be only eight months until he's expected to be back on a big-league mound.
However, as Ricco noted, the fact that Wheeler is closer to returning also changes his value. Perhaps other teams will be even more willing to assume the risk for the reward. And if that's the case, the Mets will listen.
Said Ricco: "If there's a deal that we think really makes us better, I can't say we wouldn't do the exact same thing."