Call it irony or call it symmetry. Either way, there is no getting around the reality that the best acquisition the Mets have made in “sell” mode in recent years has been Zack Wheeler. Here they are, back again at that same market, and Wheeler might be their best sales chip.
As much as they like him (and vice versa) and as much as it looks as if he finally might be reaching the potential they saw when they dealt Carlos Beltran for him seven trading deadlines ago, the Mets owe it to themselves to at least listen to the best offers.
That might sound harsh after he pitched into the eighth inning Saturday and secured his first victory since April 29. It might look heartless, considering the way fans cheered the fact that Mickey Callaway chose to leave him in against Nationals slugger Bryce Harper in the eighth inning of a 7-4 victory at Citi Field. But this is a tough business, and as Wheeler said afterward, “I want to be here, but we’re in a tough position right now.”
Maybe the best contribution he ever will make to the Mets is getting traded for two or three young guys who can plug some of the many leaks in their sinking ship.
Or maybe it will be another huge mistake, jettisoning a guy who finally might be finding health and hitting his stride at 28. The team still has to listen.
That is part of the dicey game of being a seller in baseball’s annual non-waiver trading deadline frenzy. Results often turn out like purchases from a flea market: not nearly as good as they appeared when you went shopping. Royce Ring (the yield for Roberto Alomar) did not pan out. Alex Ochoa (acquired for Bobby Bonilla) was a nice kid and a solid prospect who never was a consistent major-leaguer.
In return for Neil Walker, Jay Bruce, Addison Reed and Lucas Duda last year, the Mets got basically nothing. Then again, the club seemed more interested in dumping salaries than obtaining futures. Still, do not expect a ton for Jeurys Familia and Asdrubal Cabrera, two-month rentals this season.
Wheeler might be different, though. He is under contract for one more year after this one and is a starting pitcher heading into a market starved for starting pitching.
The best evidence of that was on the other side of the field Saturday. The Nationals are desperate to turn around their moribund season. They are dying to leap from third place in a division that was thought to be theirs by default.
And the best they could do was to go with Austin Voth, making his major-league debut after a 31-40 record in six seasons in the minors. He was the only non-major league pitcher on their 40-man roster.
In comparison, Wheeler looked like Dwight Gooden.
“He has always had that potential,” Michael Conforto said. “He’s a fun guy to watch because it looks so effortless. That 97 [mph fastball], it looks nice and smooth. I know, from talking to guys who face him, it explodes out of his hand. He does have that finish on his pitches. He has been great. We hope to see more of that out of him.”
That sort of talk makes you think the Mets would be better off keeping him. The club’s decision-makers believe the team can compete again next year with strong pitching. With Wheeler as a No. 4 starter, their rotation could be lights out.
On the other hand, what good is a terrific rotation when you don’t have anyone who can hit the ball or catch it? So they must listen when the phone rings between now and the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
Wheeler understands this. He describes himself as laid-back. “I’ve been traded, I’ve been fake-traded, so it’s nothing new to me,” he said, thinking back to 2011, when the Giants dealt him for Beltran, and to 2015, when he was heartsick over inaccurate reports that he had been traded to the Brewers for Carlos Gomez.
Despite his organization’s struggles, Wheeler wants to be here now as much as he did then. He loves the Mets. But he might help them the most by saying goodbye.