FORT MYERS, Fla. - For much of the last year, the Mets treated the right elbow of prized pitcher Zack Wheeler like a time bomb that was wired to explode.
The Mets heard the ticking. It came in the form of the pitcher's need to skip some bullpen sessions last summer, and then later, in the lingering pain that prompted an offseason filled with MRI exams.
So when the countdown hit zero Monday, and it was revealed that Wheeler's fully torn ligament almost certainly would require Tommy John surgery, there was little sense of true surprise.
"We had been forewarned by the doctors that his elbow was a concern, and that it was going to have to be managed over the course of this season," Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said.
Wheeler, 24, will face a post-surgery rehab of at least a year and the Mets must decide how to fill the promising righthander's spot in the starting rotation.
The news came after the Mets spent the last three days downplaying the pain in Wheeler's elbow, which they labeled as a chronic condition that the team managed all of last season. The Mets had prepared to do the same again this year until an MRI exam on Saturday revealed a torn ligament.
"It wasn't clear that the ligament was involved at that time," Alderson said. "But we understood that we were going to have to manage his medical condition over the course of the season. So when he complained of the elbow pain, it wasn't a surprise to us."
In recent days, details have trickled out about a 2014 season spent managing pain. Yet, with an elbow that flared up periodically, Wheeler made all 32 of his scheduled starts and logged a career high 185 1/3 innings.
Of pitchers who were age 24 or younger by July 1 last season, only Madison Bumgarner threw more pitches -- 3,372 to Wheeler's 3,308. And within that group, none logged more that Wheeler's 13 outings of 110 pitches or more.
While research into the cause of Tommy John surgery has yet to yield definitive conclusions, some research has indicated that high-velocity pitchers appear to be at more risk. Wheeler's fastball averaged 94.7 -- sixth fastest in all of baseball.
"When the elbow is involved, anything can happen," said Alderson, who defended the organization's handling of Wheeler, the former first-round draft pick acquired in the 2011 trade of Carlos Beltran to the Giants.
Alderson said the Mets saw no need to significantly change Wheeler's workload last year, nor did they feel the need to do so this season, even with uncertainty in Wheeler's elbow.
Wheeler underwent two MRI exams in the offseason. Though neither showed ligament damage, the pitcher underwent platelet rich plasma treatment. He reported to spring on a normal regimen until complaining of pain, this time over a larger portion of his elbow. That prompted the latest MRI, which revealed a tear.
Alderson sounded resigned to surgery for Wheeler, calling pain management "simply unsustainable."
"It's a blow, but at the same time we knew there would be a lot of uncertainty surrounding Zack and his elbow over the course of the season," Alderson said. "We're obviously not happy he won't be with us. But I think if there's a silver lining, it's that we now have some certainty."
The Mets' hopes of returning to the postseason hinge on their stable of young pitching. While Wheeler's loss will sting, Matt Harvey's return from Tommy John surgery return could soften the blow.
Alderson said the club was "still digesting" news of Wheeler's injury and did not name a replacement.
Veteran Dillon Gee had been the odd man out of the rotation, though he now appears to be the favorite to fill out the starting five.
But, internally, the Mets haven't ruled out giving an opportunity to prospects such as Rafael Montero, Noah Syndergaard and Long Island's Steven Matz.
For now, if the Mets go young, Syndergaard appears to have the inside track, even if putting him on the roster for Opening Day would cost the Mets an extra year of team control.