It’s the moment San Francisco Giants fans have dreaded since that fateful day in 2011: Right-handed pitching prospect Zack Wheeler has been promoted to the big leagues and will make his first start of his MLB career on Tuesday evening.
On July 28, 2011, the hurler became the property of the New York Mets when the Giants traded the sixth overall pick of the 2009 amateur draft during a deadline deal for veteran outfielder Carlos Beltran. San Francisco was desperately trying to win a second consecutive World Series title and felt the risk was worth the potential reward when the front office parted ways with its top pitching prospect. Unfortunately for Giants fans, the club failed to reach the World Series and Wheeler continues to show the potential for developing into a front-line starter.
Now in his fourth pro season, the Georgia native cruised through the minors and has a total of 19 Triple-A starts (six in 2012, 13 in 2013) under his belt. Despite pitching in the hostile environments of the Pacific Coast League and his home ball park in Las Vegas, Wheeler leaves Triple-A with an ERA of 3.93 intact. He features a 5.12 ERA at home, even though he’s been less hittable in Vegas than on the road. The big difference for Wheeler, 23, is that he’s given up seven home runs in 31.2 innings at home, as opposed to two in 37 innings while riding the buses.
The pitching prospect possesses a four-pitch repertoire and his two best pitches are his mid-to-upper-90s fastball and plus curveball. The slider and changeup round out his collection of weapons. When I spoke with the Mets organization late in the offseason and asked about his biggest opportunities for 2013, I was told that he needed to improve his changeup, become more efficient with his pitches while also learning how and when to use his pitches to maximize their effectiveness. With that in mind, I watched one of his recent starts to see how well he’s addressed those needs.
I saw Wheeler take on the Giants’ Triple-A affiliate in Fresno in early June. He displayed a compact, low-effort delivery. He flashed his mid-90s velocity and two breaking balls but his changeup was seldom used, which disappointed me given that it was identified as something he needed to work on in 2013. The first curveball he threw during the game was quite possibly his best and he struggled to command both his curve and fastball throughout the contest. He telegraphed the curveball early in the game and slowed his arm down but it was less noticeable as the game progressed. His slider was average but I’d like to see a tighter break to it.
As mentioned, Wheeler’s fastball showed good velocity but his command of the pitch was average-at-best. He struck out six batters in six innings during this appearance but his stuff didn’t exactly look like dominant “swing and miss” stuff. The heater did show very good arm-side run and, at times, gave right-handed batters fits when it exploded din on their hands. When he was able to command the ball down in the zone at the hitters’ knees, the combination of placement and movement allowed Wheeler to blow the ball past the batters.
As witnessed in the game, the pitching prospect can succeed without his best stuff and so-so command. His solid control helps him throw enough strikes to avoid getting into too much trouble with runners on base and ensures, when he struggles with the long ball, there are not a lot of runners on base. I’m not convinced that he’s ready to dominate a big league lineup but he should be able to pitch at the level of a No. 4 or 5 starter. I expect him to be susceptible to the home runs at the big league level because of his lack of consistent fastball command in the upper half of the strike zone.
I can definitely envision Wheeler eventually becoming a solid No. 2 man behind Matt Harvey (and there was a time not long ago that I preferred Wheeler to Harvey) but Mets fans should be prepared for some minor growing pains throughout 2013.