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Zack Wheeler wants to be Mets' Opening Day starter

Zulmari Hernandez, 10, from the Pioneer Academy, receives

Zulmari Hernandez, 10, from the Pioneer Academy, receives a gift from Mr. Met, Daniel Murphy (as Santa) and Zack Wheeler during a holiday party at Citi Field. (Dec. 17, 2013) Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

Does Zack Wheeler want to start Opening Day? The young Mets righthander answered the question in about as much time as it takes one of his high-90s fastballs to reach home plate.

"Of course," he said Tuesday.

That Wheeler, speaking after the Mets' annual holiday party for Queens schoolchildren, was so decisive was surprising, considering that those two words came from a usually soft-spoken 23-year-old with just a half-season in the majors.

Wheeler, of course, could have easily pointed out that Jon Niese is the staff veteran who started the Mets' opener last year. Or he could have spoken about how newly signed Bartolo Colon won 18 games last year and made his major-league debut when Wheeler was 6 years old.

But Wheeler didn't.

Instead, the hard-throwing righthander confidently laid claim to a role that's reserved for the staff ace, and that can only be seen as a good sign for the Mets considering how much Wheeler means to their plans to contend next season.

With Matt Harvey sidelined for the 2014 season while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, whether Wheeler can successfully make the jump from ballyhooed rookie to a top-of-the-rotation starter figures to play a major role in the Mets' game plan for success.

Along those lines, Wheeler made it clear he believes he'll be a better pitcher in his sophomore year, saying he is coming in with a mind-set that he thinks will help him eclipse 200 innings.

"You have a better idea," he said, "of what you need to do to be a little more successful."

He plans to arrive at spring training about 10 days before pitchers and catchers to get a jump-start on his first full season in the majors. His goal is to become a more refined innings-eater as opposed to just another hard thrower, which he said he fell victim to last season.

"When I first came up in the minor leagues, I tried to blow everyone away," he said. "You learn you're not supposed to do that. I sort of did the same thing here."

The signing of Colon figures to take some pressure off Wheeler and also potentially transforms the Mets' rotation into the strength everyone expected it to be before Harvey got hurt.

Once a power pitcher himself, Colon has made the transition into more of a contact pitcher in recent years, and it's worked out well for him. After going 18-6 with a 2.65 ERA for Oakland last season, he received a two-year, $20-million deal with the Mets.

General manager Sandy Alderson, speaking publicly about the Colon signing yesterday for the first time, defended giving a two-year contract to a pitcher who turns 41 in May. He said the Mets feel good about his shoulder and elbow and that "the talent / performance reward merited the risk."

Alderson said he was likely to add only another starting pitcher on a minor-league contract to compete for the fifth spot.

Most of Alderson's remaining work this winter, he said, will be spent trying to find experienced relievers, perhaps a shortstop upgrade over incumbent Ruben Tejada and continuing to look for a trade partner for one of their first basemen, likely Ike Davis.

Alderson said the market for first basemen has shrunk in recent weeks, and he did not rule out bringing both Davis and Lucas Duda to spring training.

"We're still talking with a number of teams," he said. "I can't say anything will happen . . . We're not anxious about it."

Notes & quotes: Daniel Murphy, who played the role of Santa Claus at the holiday party, said he's aware of his name appearing in reported trade discussions, but he stressed his desire to stay a Met. "I want to be here," he said . . . Alderson is "fairly confident" closer Bobby Parnell will be ready for spring training after surgery for a herniated disc Sept. 10. Parnell will begin a throwing program shortly and will see his surgeon next month for a follow-up visit.

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