A lot can change in seven years.
MLB.com’s 2012 Prospect Watch tabbed New York Mets righthander Zack Wheeler, then 22, as the No. 6 prospect in baseball. The prize of the 2011 Carlos Beltran trade, his numbers over his first two big league campaigns (3.50 ERA, 8.5 SO/9 over 49 starts) suggested Wheeler would be a strong asset in the team’s rotation for at least the next few years.
It was not to be. A torn UCL was discovered in spring 2015, with follow-up Tommy John surgery scratching his season. On the road back in 2016, complications limited Wheeler to one single inning pitched for high-A St. Lucie before he was shut down.
Finally, 2 1/2 years after his last MLB start, Wheeler returned to the mound at Citi Field on April 7, 2017. He looked every bit like a hurler who hadn’t faced major league hitters in a game that counted in 30 months. Two separate stints on the disabled list — the latter effectively ending his season before August — and a fat 5.21 ERA over 17 starts shoved the career of the once-promising starting pitcher with good velocity and a potent curveball against a wall. The Mets optioned him to Triple-A Las Vegas to start 2018, a move that did nothing to counter the idea that his best days were long gone.
Then, a funny thing happened. Wheeler sparked in his first start in the minors, and he was recalled to start the Mets’ 11th game of the season. He went seven innings against the Marlins in Miami, allowing just two hits, one walk and a run while striking out seven in a 4-1 victory. Although he still had his struggles before the All-Star break (4.44 ERA, 2.65 SO/BB), his second-half numbers placed him among the finest starters in the National League.
From late July through the end of 2018, Wheeler torched the opposition. His 1.68 ERA over 11 second-half starts ranked eighth in baseball (minimum five starts), slightly better than his NL Cy Young Award-winning teammate Jacob deGrom.
The strong finish to last season should give Wheeler, who turns 29 on May 30, and the Mets hope that they have one of the better No. 3 pitchers — behind deGrom and Noah Syndergaard — in baseball. If he and his fellow righties hold up their end, and a retooled lineup provides adequate run support, the Mets could become one of the most dangerous teams in October.