By Brad Kallet
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Before Noah Syndergaard took the National League by storm in 2016, Steven Matz pitched his way into Mets fans’ hearts the summer before.
Before those two, it was Jacob deGrom who looked like the next great thing, coming out of nowhere to win the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year Award.
Before deGrom, this was briefly Matt Harvey’s town. Brilliant over 10 starts in 2012, he cemented himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball the following year, starting the All-Star Game at Citi Field in 2013.
And before them all, in what feels like another lifetime ago, there was Zack Wheeler.
Wheeler made his big-league debut a year after Harvey, with Matz, amazingly, drafted the same year as him. Harvey, Matz and deGrom were also in the Mets’ system before Wheeler.
But you’ll remember that, at one time, Wheeler was actually regarded as the ace of the future in New York. He was the first of the Mets’ “Big 5” to garner massive hype and expectations. He was the first to climb up the prospect rankings and set the Mets on their pitching-dominant path.
The credit, ultimately, goes to general manager Sandy Alderson for making these moves and transforming the organization, but Wheeler was at the forefront of what has been a particularly fruitful period in franchise history.
It’s easy to forget and overlook all of that because, as Wheeler has been relegated to watching in the dugout and at home, Harvey, deGrom, Matz and Syndergaard have blazed past him and carved out excellent careers for themselves.
Wheeler’s time in Queens — and in Binghamton, and in Port St. Lucie — has largely been marred by frustration and disappointment. It began on July 28, 2011, when Alderson, beginning his rebuild in earnest, shipped Carlos Beltran to the Giants for Wheeler, a sixth overall pick two years earlier.
With much fanfare, the Georgia native made his major-league debut on June 18, 2013, against his hometown Braves. A year prior, Harvey exploded on to the scene and lit the world on fire, so Mets fans were predictably hoping for a reenactment. Wheeler did a solid job in his first season, especially for a rookie, but was far from lights out, going 7-5 with a 3.42 ERA in 17 starts. He got his strikeouts, but struggled with command and surrendered too many home runs.
Wheeler showed flashes of dominance during his sophomore campaign in 2014, but, again, was hurt by walks and long balls. Over 185 1/3 innings, spanning 32 starts, he went 11-11 with a 3.54 ERA.
With Wheeler seemingly on track to develop into a top-tier starting pitcher, his baseball world turned upside down when a torn ulnar collateral ligament forced him to undergo Tommy John surgery. He spent 2015 rehabbing and recovering, though he found his way into the news despite never throwing a pitch.
Ahead of the non-waiver trade deadline, Alderson had a deal in place to send Wheeler and Wilmer Flores to the Brewers for Carlos Gomez. The trade ended up falling through, leading to the organization-altering acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes, and, in the aftermath, it was revealed that Wheeler had pleaded with his general manager not to give up on him.
After all was said and done, Wheeler remained a Met.
Projected to make his highly anticipated return in the summer of 2016, he suffered setback after setback and, for a second consecutive season, didn’t pitch at all.
The future for Wheeler, still just 26, is unclear. He’s expected to make a full recovery in 2017, but when he’ll actually pitch in a major league game is anybody’s guess. Alderson intimated in early December that Wheeler might be used in the bullpen when he’s activated off the disabled list, as the Mets need help in that department and they’ll likely try to ease the right-hander in.
Wheeler expressed some dismay when asked about his potential relief role, but said he’d accept it if it’s best for the team and best for his health. Assuming his stamina increases and he’s able to get outs, the logical next step would be to slot him in the fifth spot in the rotation.
Six years after he joined the organization, Wheeler is still hanging on, despite being the lone member of the Mets’ heralded quintet of starting pitchers who hasn’t lived up to his billing.
Aside from perhaps Harvey, who took a significant step back in 2016, Wheeler will likely be the hungriest Met to get back on the mound and prove his worth.
He was the first of the five to make a name for himself. Soon we’ll see if he can come full circle and instead of leading the starting rotation, complete it.
Brad Kallet is the managing editor of TENNIS.com and a frequent contributor to WFAN.com. Follow him on Twitter @brad_kallet