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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Zack Wheeler shows he belongs in Mets’ rotation

New York Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler (45)

New York Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler (45) delivers a pitch against the Miami Marlins during a spring training game at Roger Dean Stadium on March 27, 2017. Photo Credit: USA TODAY Sports / Steve Mitchell

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.

A few days ago, this debate was over in our minds. Robert Gsellman had pitched his way into the No. 5 spot, returning WBC hero Seth Lugo was at worst a great bullpen piece and Zack Wheeler would be left behind in Florida for some fine-tuning after a roller-coaster two-year rehab from Tommy John surgery.

Easy, right?

And then the past 24 hours happened, forcing us to rekindle the discussion all over again, exactly one week from Opening Day. Right after Steven Matz wound up in limbo because of elbow tenderness, Wheeler did what very few besides himself expected Monday against the Marlins in Jupiter. All but written off from the April rotation, in his do-or-die moment of spring training, Wheeler stepped up and gave the Mets a serious reason to reconsider.

Facing Miami’s regular lineup, Wheeler allowed two hits in five scoreless innings. He walked two and struck out three. But the most remarkable part? He was surprisingly efficient in needing only 70 pitches.

Previously, the command issues were his Achilles’ heel. The mid-90s fastball had been there. The funky breaking stuff had, too.

The concern, however, was the possibility of Wheeler exhausting the bullpen by April. But if Monday’s performance is to be believed, that changes things.

One scout at Roger Dean Stadium gave a big thumbs-up on Wheeler, saying he looked plenty capable of getting big-league hitters out next week. If that’s the case, we’re reversing field from a week ago. Give Wheeler a shot at the rotation.

“I showed them, ‘Hey, I’ve still got it,’ ” Wheeler said. “When I need to lock in, I can lock in. I think today proved that I am ready.”

That’s probably what we liked most about Wheeler’s outing. He was a money pitcher when he absolutely had to be, a quality not measured by radar guns.

The Mets plan to huddle Tuesday to discuss their roster options, and given their wealth of pitching, there really are no bad choices. It’s just a matter of optimizing the pieces.

Wheeler seems best suited for the rotation while Lugo — who has relief experience — is a more appropriate fit for the bullpen.

As for the Wheeler-in-relief argument, which Sandy Alderson suggested last week still was alive, we just don’t see it. Wheeler appeared completely out of sync when he piggy-backed Matz last Wednesday, and Terry Collins even said afterward that his disrupted routine was part of the problem. It also makes no sense after not using Wheeler in that role during spring training.

Enter Lugo. Before he and Gsellman excelled down the stretch to save the Mets’ 2016 season, Lugo made nine relief appearances, striking out 16 and walking six in 17 innings. He also had a 0.94 WHIP and opponents batted .185 against him.

Sticking Lugo in the bullpen is not a knock against him. It’s just that he’s more versatile than Wheeler, and Lugo didn’t sound at all defeated when the possibility was raised after his own Monday start.

“I just want to be on the team,” Lugo said. “If I can get on the team, that’s most important.”

Sounds as if he’s already mentally prepared for the job.

As for Lugo’s rough outing against the Nationals, who battered him for eight hits and four runs in 4 1⁄3 innings, that’s easily put aside. Trea Turner twice went deep off him and Bryce Harper added one of his two homers on the day. But unlike Wheeler, who treated Monday’s start like an audition, Lugo was more low-key about it. He admitted that downshifting from the super-charged WBC environment with Puerto Rico turned out to be a bigger adjustment than he imagined. His velocity was down and his slider was flat.

“It’s hard to ramp up and then try to go back down to ramp straight back up again,” Lugo said of the emotional swing. “It’s something that I’ve never done.”

One factor used as ammunition to hold Wheeler back is the discussed innings limit, which the Mets have stated to be in the range of 120 to 125. But with so much depth — and no crystal ball to see four months in advance — that’s even more of a reason to use Wheeler while he’s physically capable of helping. Who knows what happens down the road?

Worry about April first. And put Wheeler in the rotation.

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