Recovering Mets righty isn't sure whether he'll be in rotation or bullpen
By Joe Trezza
NEW YORK -- Zack Wheeler's emotions ran the gamut since he last pitched in a Major League game two Septembers ago: from disappointment to hope and back again, the ride riddled with constant frustration.
Now, the one thing he doesn't feel is pain. Wheeler said his right arm is as healthy as it's been since undergoing Tommy John and flexor tendon surgery in March 2015, fueling the likelihood he'll pitch again this spring. The only question is where.
With a mind to both their numerous starting pitching options and Wheeler's injury history, the Mets are considering trying the 26-year-old in a bullpen role come 2017. It's a possibility Wheeler is aware of and approaching with reluctant understanding.
"I've started my whole life. Obviously I'd like to do that. But I know they're looking out for me innings-wise and stuff," Wheeler said Wednesday at the club's annual coat drive at Citi Field. "I've been out for two years, so its hard to throw me back in there. I get that. I'm just looking out for myself and my health. Whatever is best for my health is fine with me."
Multiple setbacks prevented Wheeler from returning last July as New York initially hoped. He needed a stitch removed in April, he felt elbow discomfort in June and he was shut down after sustaining a flexor strain during a lone rehab start in August.
Since then, Wheeler said he's felt no aches and no pain. He threw casually in November and he expects to ramp up his throwing program later this month, "like a normal offseason," he said. "I'm feeling the best that I've felt."
Once a centerpiece of the Mets' rebuilding process, Wheeler went 18-16 with a 3.50 ERA and 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings over 49 starts from 2013-14. But he's returning to a team very different from the one he left, with the club officially contenders again after two straight postseason appearances.
But given general manager Sandy Alderson's preference to cultivate relievers from within and Wheeler's power stuff, the Mets see the righty as a potentially dominant force in the late innings. It's also a convenient way to limit Wheeler's innings after so much missed time.
"I'm just trying to think -- not really outside the box, but just expansively where he might fit," Alderson said this week at the Winter Meetings in National Harbor, Md. "There's no reason for us to say, 'Well, he's got to be a starter.' Now, he may feel that way himself. But it may be coming back after two years that he's better off pitching out of the 'pen."
The D-backs attempted a similar transition with former starter Daniel Hudson in 2014, moving him to the bullpen after two years of Tommy John rehab. Hudson needed two surgeries.
"The biggest thing for me right now is to stay healthy throughout the whole year," Wheeler said, "whether I'm a starter or a reliever."
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.