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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Zack Wheeler’s tender elbow a reality check for Mets

Mets pitcher Zack  Wheeler throws during spring training

Mets pitcher Zack  Wheeler throws during spring training on Monday, Feb. 13, 2017 in Port St. Lucie, Florida. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Two days. Forty-eight hours. That’s how long it took for a member of the Mets’ rotation to come down with a sore elbow once Zack Wheeler complained of tenderness in that area, the same joint repaired by Tommy John surgery two years ago.

For all the Mets’ grandiose plans of protecting their talented young staff, any safeguards can only be as strong as the weakest link, and Wheeler already is gulping anti-inflammatory medication midway through the first week of spring training.

“It’s always been difficult for him to recover between starts,” pitching coach Dan Warthen said after Wednesday’s workout. “We just have to be careful because he’s a special arm. We’ll have kid gloves with him.”

The Mets are loaded with special arms, which is why team officials came up with a new strategy this year to protect them in the buildup to Opening Day. As Warthen explained, the starters will throw less, with an extra day between side sessions, and even preserve their bullets during fielding drills.

Sounds good, right? And then, in the middle of this same conversation, just as we’re prepared to buy into this revolutionary program, Warthen reveals that Wheeler is hurting from his first bullpen. Nothing serious, mind you. Just an ache that Warthen described as “tenderness,” maybe the result of lingering scar tissue in the elbow.

Of course, anything involving elbow discomfort is an immediate red flag. But Warthen quickly dismissed it as typical early camp soreness, and said the elbow was “very structurally sound” after getting checked out during team physicals this week. Wheeler wasn’t available for comment, but Warthen said the pitcher was feeling much better after taking medication and would get additional rest before his next bullpen.

Despite Wheeler being projected as the Mets’ fifth starter, here’s the reality. He hasn’t thrown a pitch in the majors since his 2015 TJ surgery and is leaking potential at a rapid rate, slipping from his peak as a future ace to fragile reclamation project by the age of 26. For the record, Wheeler is 18-16 with a 3.50 ERA over two seasons, with an 8.5 K/9 ratio. But that feels like ancient history now, and he’s in danger of being passed by Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo on the depth chart before the No. 5 competition even begins.

While it wouldn’t be fair to write off Wheeler on Feb. 15, the Mets sound like they’re not sure what to do with him or what he’s capable of contributing. One minute, they insist he’s a starting pitcher and would like to see him take the fifth spot. The next, they wonder aloud if he’s better suited to the bullpen, where they can cut back his workload — despite serious concerns about his durability.

Terry Collins said earlier this week that Wheeler would be regulated by an innings limit, but Warthen took that a step further Wednesday by suggesting he’d be capped in the “low 100s,” a number that wouldn’t make him much of a season-long factor for a team that views itself as a World Series contender.

Those aren’t very appealing choices for Wheeler: Either getting buried in the bullpen or having his starts chopped up in a manner that never lets him perform like a true member of the rotation. But what options do the Mets have if Wheeler keeps being sidelined by some affliction? As much as Collins and Warthen try to design a way to keep these extremely valuable starters functioning at a high level, the more they’re reminded of what an impossible task it might be.

On paper, this year’s plan sounds logical. If spring training is less taxing on the Mets’ pitchers, they should be fresher for the regular season — and healthier — as long as they’re able to build the necessary arm strength. And yet before the Mets could even fully employ this protocol, to put their ideas into practice, Wheeler almost instantly becomes a crisis point. This rotation may seem like it’s destined to never pitch together, but the Mets will keep trying, because the payoff for their efforts could be monumental.

“If all these guys are out there for 28 to 33 starts,” Warthen said, “we should be playing late into the postseason.”

If. Should. They’ve always been the two magic words for the Mets’ rotation. And the two most frustrating ones.

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