NEW YORK -- Zack Wheeler's long, arduous journey back to the Major Leagues is one step closer to fruition. At the tail end of a recovery from Tommy John surgery stalled frequently by caution and setbacks, the Mets right-hander is scheduled to begin a rehab assignment Saturday, more than 22 months since he last pitched in a Major League game.
This after Wheeler emerged unscathed from a 23-pitch simulated game Monday in Port St. Lucie, Fla., a milestone he'd previously been unable to reach due to lingering elbow discomfort. Wheeler's fastball sat between 91 and 93 mph, according to Mets general manager Sandy Alderson. It was the first time Wheeler had faced live batters since his surgery in March 2015.
The Mets originally hoped Wheeler could return by July 1, completing what they envisioned would be a rotation full of vaunted young starters. But the right-hander, who went 11-11 with a 3.54 ERA in his only full season in 2014, needed another surgery in April to replace an undissolved stitch from his elbow, then experienced more discomfort in June. The club briefly shut him down and has treaded carefully since, slowly stretching Wheeler out in bullpens.
A start for Class A Advanced St. Lucie on Saturday represents the next step. If that goes well, more will follow. The Mets now target an early September date for Wheeler's big league return, which would improve a rotation toeing such hot coals the club reacquired Jonathon Niese from the Pirates at Monday's non-waiver Trade Deadline.
The Mets have already lost Matt Harvey for the rest of the season to thoracic outlet syndrome, and continue to monitor bone spurs in Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz's elbows. Niese was added in an effort to both further bridge the gap until Wheeler's return and help ease the righty's workload once back in Queens.
Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.