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Former New York Mets pitcher Nelson Figueroa quietly floated an idea that could breathe a little change into a franchise that needs to earn back good will after a poor 2017 just before the new year.

The now TV analyst pondered about bumping Zack Wheeler out of the starting rotation and 400 feet away into the bullpen. It’s a fair point, and, honestly, probably a smart move.

Drafted by the San Francisco Giants in 2009, Wheeler came to New York two years later as slugger Carlos Beltran headed for the west coast. He arrived with hype and fanfare – the young flamethrower would become a mainstay for a team historically bolstered by pitching. Blue chip prospect Matt Harvey was waiting in the wings for a call-up in 2012 – the same year R.A. Dickey tossed a pair of one-hitters and Johan Santana threw the Mets’ first no-hitter.

Sadly, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Dickey was traded after that season for, among others, super prospect Noah Syndergaard. Affectionately known as Thor by fans, the hulking righty added excessive strength training before the 2017 campaign and tore a muscle that required all season to repair. Harvey has sprinkled elite appearances with injuries, awful performances on the mound and questionable decisions off it, at one point requiring the team conduct a welfare check when he failed to show at Citi Field. Jacob deGrom underwent the knife in 2016 to move a nerve; the surgery was a complete success and the starter was one of the few 2017 highlights. Last season was a complete disaster for kid starter Steven Matz after showing serious signs of promise his first two seasons. The southpaw ended 2016 with surgery to remove a bone spur in his elbow, began 2017 with a two-month DL stint for an elbow strain, poor pitching performances and an August date with a surgeon for the same procedure deGrom underwent.

Citi Field was billed as the home of the Four Horsemen, a moniker that did not include Wheeler as the southpaw spent more time recovering from injuries than competing. It started with Tommy John surgery early in 2015 and recovery that consumed much of 2016 and ended with a trio of DL stints in the following season and a half. He wasn’t winning accolades with his limited performances either, finishing last year with a 5.21 ERA and the highest home run rates allowed in his career.

But maybe, just maybe, removing Wheeler from the stress of throwing 200 innings can finally reverse the injury trend. After all, he does have a pitch repertoire that can excel as a reliever. Wheeler’s bread-and-butter pitch when he’s on is a 96-mph four-fingered fastball with good movement. His common secondary offerings are a sinker that’s faster than average at 95 mph, an 89-mph slider that’s become a 12-to-6 offering and a 79-mph curveball that lacked horizontal and vertical movement last year. On rare occasion, an 88-mph changeup crosses the plate with poor movement in 2017. As a reliever, Wheeler could reinvent himself as a two- or three-pitch pitcher that boasts a plus fastball. New manager Mickey Calloway is an ardent fan of the curveball, not unlike former pitching coach Dan Warthen and the slider, so it seems likely that would remain. A younger Wheeler boasted a wipeout slider to lefty batters and could add a horizontal option to his pitch selection.

Calling the southpaw out of the bullpen could also prevent exposing him to lineups and limit damage. Despite the 5.60 ERA, Wheeler allowed the lowest batting average and on-base percentage just once through the lineup in 2017. That’s been the case throughout his career as well – compare his .675 on-base plus slugging percentage the first time through and his .776 percentage the third time through. He’s also not going to strike out more than a single batter an inning after the second time through the lineup, nor limit his walks as the game goes along.

Obviously all of this history and analysis does little to evaluate the free agent market and Mets current roster. There is a shortage of affordable, quality starting pitching, especially compared to their relief counterparts, which could be an argument against the plan. But if summoning Wheeler out of the bullpen rebuilds his value even to the point he’s a moderate trade piece come July, then it’s clearly worth trying something different this year.

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8 comments on “Zack Wheeler to pen makes sense

  • John

    Not a bad idea but stop referring to Wheeler as a southpaw as he’s right handed!

  • Rich

    Ummmm Wheeler is not a southpaw… He throws with his right arm.

    • Mike Koehler

      I was just testing you, that’s all. Testing.
      *runs off*

  • Pete

    i like the idea Mike. Its an insurance policy as well if the Mets lose any number of starting pitchers. Can always extend him during the season to pitch multiple innings. Saves wear and tear of having to pitch 200 innings. Build up his confidence and have Calloway work on his mechanics.

  • TJ

    Wheels is definitely a candidate, as well as Lugo, Gsellman, Matz, and even Harvey. Should all the starters actually be healthy, it should be a fun training camp. I’d still like to see them add a quality veteran to the pen, but if they are confident that they can convert starters that don’t make the top 5 to quality relievers, I’m in. Ultimately, the way to win the NL East in 2018 will be via pitching – with a MLB staff of 12 above average pitchers, along with 3 quality starters and 3 quality relievers at AAA ready to step in when needed.

  • Chris F

    I dont like it one bit. If you think of a reliever as a 3 out guy for the most part this is quite an issue for Wheeler. Basically look his first innings over…18-20-22+ pitches. He gets to 5 or 6 innings by settling down in the 3rd. I think it is a huge risk to put a guy out there that has to perform from the first pitch knowing that’s one of his biggest shortcomings.

    Wheeler out of the pen? Sounds good, tastes bad.

  • NormE

    I like the idea of Wheeler out of the pen. As a starter he nibbles around the edges too much. Hopefully, the new pitching brain trust can get him to simplify his pitching style and trust his stuff. The question I have is does Wheeler out of the pen become a one inning guy or a guy who can pick up after a starter goes 5 to 6 innings and give 2 to 3 innings a few times a week? How many of the projected Mets’ starters will be going more than 6 innings (JDG, Thor)?

  • Ken Timque

    Wheeler in the bullpen??? Are you kidding,, has anyone noticed how he struggles in the first inning he pitches? Seems like he consistently throws 25 – 30 pitches and struggles with his control. Sounds like a recipe for disaster as a reliever !!

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