Back in mid-February, when the Mets first floated the idea of a 125-inning limit on Zack Wheeler for 2017, it didn’t feel like such a monumental concern.
Wheeler, coming off a complicated two-year rehab from Tommy John surgery, had yet to earn a rotation spot. There even was serious discussion about having him open the season in the bullpen as a more gradual way to reacclimate to the majors.
And when Wheeler finally did lock up a starting job during the final week of spring training — thanks to the twin elbow injuries suffered by Steven Matz and Seth Lugo — he still figured to be a bonus addition to the Mets’ stellar rotation. Once his innings expired, no biggie. The others were more than capable of getting the Mets to October — and beyond.
Almost seven weeks in, however, that thinking has changed dramatically. The once-forgotten Wheeler now is the Mets’ most consistent 2017 starter, as hard as that is to fathom. And if the Mets are going to pull out of this early-season funk, Wheeler will have to be among the key people driving that bus.
Until he is forced to bow out, of course, which at the current rate is looking like the first week of August. After Wheeler’s five innings-plus in Saturday night’s 7-5 win over the Angels, he has totaled 43 1⁄3 innings in eight starts, leaving him with roughly 82 innings left on the clock.
Depending on how the Mets choose to parcel those out, and if they’re able to go to a six-man rotation for a brief period, maybe they can get Wheeler to August if they choose to stick to their 125-inning plan. But don’t be so sure about that.
“What we try to do is establish a target, and then we constantly re-evaluate,” general manager Sandy Alderson said before Saturday night’s game. “And that’s what we’ll do in his case.”
It’s not a decision the Mets have to make tomorrow. But they’ve already reconsidered how to deploy Wheeler in these first two months out of necessity. Rather than budget his innings, hoping to stretch Wheeler as deep as possible into the season, the Mets must squeeze as much as they can from him each time he takes the mound.
Noah Syndergaard is out until August with a torn lat muscle. Matt Harvey remains a shadow of his former Dark Knight persona. Robert Gsellman has been demoted to the bullpen. As for Matz and Lugo, they’re expected to need a minimum of two more rehab starts if everything proceeds smoothly.
The Mets normally don’t do smooth. It’s not in their DNA. And that’s why Wheeler has become so critical here in late May. He’s the only Mets starter to allow one run or fewer while throwing at least five innings in the same game three times. It’s not an accomplishment that’s going to win Wheeler a Cy Young Award, but he’s been the closest thing the Mets have to a seat belt during these turbulent weeks.
“I can’t worry about July — I’ve got to worry about right now,” Terry Collins said of Wheeler’s proposed innings cap. “Right now, he’s one of the horses we’ve got to ride to get back on the right track.”
Wheeler, in his own painfully methodical fashion, was cruising along with five scoreless innings Saturday night before the ride ended abruptly in the sixth. That inning began with a pair of walks and a bloop single before Wheeler drilled Jefry Marte in the back to force in the Angels’ first run. Collins, recognizing the warning lights, immediately appeared to take the baseball.
That’s life with Wheeler, who goes from pumping 97-mph fastballs, as he did to Mike Trout in the first inning, to completely losing the strike zone by the sixth. He finished with five strikeouts but also had five walks as he trimmed his ERA to 3.74.
Wheeler was just good enough Saturday night, but any talk of an innings limit brings to mind Harvey’s cautionary tale, when he agreed to push past the 180 ceiling to 216 (including playoffs). He’s never been the same since.
“This is kind of new ground, because he was out two years,” Alderson said of Wheeler. “I think we’re just working our way through, keeping an eye on him. We have a plan. The plan doesn’t govern what we do necessarily, but it’s a reference.”
While keeping their fingers crossed.