PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- One of Zack Wheeler's first classrooms was a parking lot.
Family vacations to Florida were common back when Wheeler's brother, Adam, was a Minor Leaguer in the Yankees' organization, soaking up the instruction of Dwight Gooden, Billy Connors and one of the more respected pitching vanguards in modern baseball history.
At the time, the younger Wheeler was an undersized, undeveloped middle school student, so lacking in velocity that about a dozen local travel teams cut him from their ranks. He was still years away from becoming one of the most-hyped prospects in New York City baseball history, tabbed to lead a starting pitching renaissance in Flushing.
Those days, he was merely a skinny kid from Georgia, throwing to his professional brother, aching for the second-hand wisdom of Gooden and Connors and the pitching-rich Yankees.
"He knew where the information was coming from, and he knew it was good information," Adam Wheeler said by telephone from suburban Indiana, where he makes his living flipping houses. "At that age, he was working on stuff that I had just started working on in the Minors. When you know you're the only one out of all your friends getting Major League instruction, I'm sure that helped him out a lot."
Roughly a decade after Wheeler's first parking lot lesson, the Mets acquired him in one of the most significant trades in franchise history. It stands today as one of Sandy Alderson's two defining transactions as general manager, along with last winter's blockbuster acquisition of Travis d'Arnaud.
If both deals prove successful, the Mets could be on to something.
Athletics run in Wheeler's family. His mother, Elaine, grew up playing softball and basketball, while his father, Barry, joined competitive baseball leagues as an adult. Wheeler's eldest brother, Jacob, played baseball and basketball until a heart condition interfered; Adam was a 13th-round Draft pick of the Yankees.
Zack's talent took longer to develop. Always skinny, he was also short as a child despite the height in his gene pool. Because Wheeler was seven years younger than his closest sibling, his brothers rarely let him play in their pickup games. They gave him a whistle instead and told him to ref.
Little changed once Wheeler reached his teenage years. His fastball velocity was so pedestrian as a middle schooler that, within the baseball hotbed of suburban Atlanta, roughly a dozen travel teams refused to give him a uniform. Had Barry not pulled enough strings to land his son on a less discriminating club, Wheeler probably would have quit the sport altogether.
"I wasn't that kid who stood out in front of anybody," he said. "Everybody thinks that it came natural. I actually had to work for it."
Around the time he hit high school, Wheeler also hit a growth spurt, his velocity rising high into the 80s and finally the 90s, where it sat when the Giants selected him sixth overall in the 2009 Draft. He signed, and -- like many top pitching prospects -- bulled his way through the lower levels of the Minors by relying on little more than his now-superlative fastball.
Wheeler's stock rose. Two years later, when Mets scouts fanned across the country in search of trade targets for outfielder Carlos Beltran, they took note. One of them, Roy Smith, offered glowing reports of the kid from Georgia. Smith's superiors bit.
"Once Wheeler was in play," said Mets special assistant J.P. Ricciardi, who coordinated the scouting effort, "he was the No. 1 guy."
Beltran became a Giant, Wheeler a Met, and over the next season and a half the right-hander learned how and when best to deploy his secondary pitches, how to command his fastball, how to become more consistent. Standard stuff, but Wheeler took to the lessons about as well as any prospect can.
His organizational debut in the Florida State League was electric, with a 2.00 ERA, 31 strikeouts and five walks over 27 innings. Wheeler topped that last year by posting a 3.26 ERA in 25 starts split between the top two levels of the Minors.
It is worth noting that some prospects spend years stuck at Double-A, the most significant developmental hurdle. Wheeler spent four months.
As the club's No. 2 prospect as ranked by MLB.com, he is at the cusp of the big leagues, and although he will not make the team out of Spring Training -- a need for more seasoning is the official reasoning, but the Mets also want to delay his service-time clock -- he should arrive around the All-Star break.
"He's done everything we would have liked him to do," vice president of scouting and player development Paul DePodesta said, "and maybe even beyond that. He's been terrific."
Wheeler's only splurge upon signing a $3.3 million Draft contract with the Giants was a bright red Dodge Ram 2500 diesel, which he drives around his hometown of Dallas, Ga., like a parade float. He lifted it, installed new tires and rims, a new grille, smoke stacks for the exhaust and steel bumpers on the front and back.
|"I wasn't that kid who stood out in front of anybody. Everybody thinks that it came natural. I actually had to work for it."|
|-- Zack Wheeler|
In a region of Georgia that Adam Wheeler describes as "counnnn-try," stressing the first syllable, Zack stands out.
"There's a ton of big trucks out there," his brother said, "but he, of course, had to get the biggest one."
If any of Wheeler's family members happen to take the Dodge for a spin, Zack receives text messages asking if he is in town. Should his baseball career earn him another big contract, Wheeler says, he will purchase something more practical: a custom-made muscle car.
It may be a flamboyant hobby, yet the roads of Paulding County are the only stage on which Wheeler seeks attention. Often mentioned in the same breath as Matt Harvey due to their similar age and potential, Wheeler is everything his teammate is not. Where Harvey is serious, Wheeler is mellow. Where Harvey is fiery, Wheeler is chill.
Though this spring marks his first in a Major League camp, Wheeler shrugs when asked about his locker assignment between Harvey and two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana.
"Good all-around guys," Wheeler said, as if they were his childhood friends.
When his brother texted him on the first day of Spring Training, wondering how it felt "to be around all the big dogs," Wheeler replied that "it ain't no different."
"That's not temporary, that's not false," Adam Wheeler said. "That's just the way he is. We pounded in his head to be humble -- no matter what happens, be humble. My family is like that. We don't like all the attention, I guess. I'm not sure why."
At the least, Wheeler has learned to tolerate it. Fielding a seemingly endless string of interview requests each day, Wheeler appears unfazed by the crush of microphones, notebooks and recorders. Which is good, because his popularity will only increase if he enjoys the type of success the Mets predict for him.
They envision a rotation led by Wheeler, Harvey, Jon Niese and Noah Syndergaard, one of the other bright young players they acquired this winter. Scouts tend to consider Wheeler the most talented of the bunch, a big dog himself, a diesel truck of a player -- in Ricciardi's words, "everything we thought he would be."
What excites the Mets even more, however, is what Wheeler might still become.