Prospect A-Z Day 23: Zack Wheeler

December 30, 2011
Yesterday, Prospect A-Z reviewed Arodys Vizcaino, a hard throwing righty for Atlanta. He has a high ceiling in either the rotation or bullpen depending on how durable he proves to be. As long as he remains in the Braves organization, he might end up as a late inning weapon simply because they have so much starting pitching depth. He's a player the Yankees will regret trading, especially because not only did Javier Vazquez not work out for them (again), they could really use a young starter with good stuff to step into the rotation. Today, we'll move onto a prospect their NL East rival also acquired in a trade, Mets righty Zack Wheeler. Zack Wheeler, RHP, New York Mets (2011: A+ San Jose, A+ St. Lucie) The Giants were dealing from a position of strength. Trying to defend their first World Series in San Francisco, they desperately needed a middle order of the bat with Buster Posey out for the season and a lineup already struggling with him, and their rotation appeared set. Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain provide an experienced yet not very old 1-2 punch, Jonathan Sanchez has great stuff that he often couldn't harness, and Madison Bumgarner is one of the league's best young up and comers. It looked like they were set, so they could afford to trade a pitching prospect. The Mets were in the first year of the new Sandy Alderson regime. With one of the highest payrolls in the league and one of the least talented rosters in the league, they needed a complete rebuild. With a handful of talented players on expiring contracts like Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Francisco Rodriguez, they could sacrifice a few meaningless 2011 wins to accelerate the rebuilding process. They ended up not trading Reyes and Rodriguez couldn't fetch them much because of the toxic vesting option for 2012, but Beltran netted them a prospect with great stuff. Should the Giants have traded Wheeler for Beltran? On one hand, San Francisco GM Brian Sabean's approach that since they're the defending champions, they need to do anything they can to defend the title and win another World Series. On the other hand, everyone should be satisfied with one championship, and it wouldn't be wise to hurt the long term stability of the franchise for two months for a player that will likely only be on the team for two months. It's easy to feel optimistic about the Giants rotation because of the talent and success, but let's play devil's advocate here. Matt Cain is a free agent after 2012, and Tim Lincecum's salary is rising through arbitration. The Giants are a popular team in a big market, but even they're limited by budgetary concerns at a certain point, and they're already near that point. Bumgarner gives them cheap production, but now that Sanchez has been traded, they need to find a way to fill out the 4 and 5 spots. That shouldn't be difficult because AT&T Park is favorable for pitchers, but teams don't like spending free agent dollars on those spots because pitching is expensive on the market. One more factor that added to the risk of trading a good prospect for The Mets preferred to receiving one really good prospect for Beltran instead of a package of lesser guys, and the Braves weren't willing to meet that price. While they wouldn't part with Mike Minor or another pitching prospect, the Giants stepped up to the plate. Now Wheeler is a Met, and he's already their best prospect. Along with Matt Harvey, the Mets once again have a couple guys that could one day pitch against the top of their rotation instead of just settling for back of the rotation starters. Wheeler is still a couple years away though, and he's going to need to stay healthy. Wheeler was a top 10 pick in the 2009 draft and was compensated quite well for it, receiving a 3.3 million dollar bonus. He didn't make his pro debut until the following year, and he was limited to only 58.2 innings in low-A due to a persistent finger injury. In those innings, he wasn't bad. He allowed far too many baserunners, especially via the base on balls. He was able to strike out 10.7 batters per nine, so there certainly weren't questions about his stuff. His Giants career continued in 2011 with San Jose where he cut his BB/9 down to 4.8 and continued to strike out a lot of batters. After the trade, Wheeler made six starts for St. Lucie, the Mets' equivalent of San Jose in the Florida State League. It's a much friendlier pitching environment, and he took advantage. His first start lasted four innings, and he allowed four runs. In his last five starts, Wheeler struck out 27 in 23 innings and only allowed two more runs. It's a small sample size, but he only walked five in 27 innings, a far cry from his previous walk rates. Was it simply a hot stretch, or were the continuing improvements in his mechanics paying off? 2012 will be telling. His best pitch is his fastball which can sit in the mid 90's with movement. He's 6'4 and 185 pounds, which means Wheeler still has projectability left. His curveball and changeup can both be above average, and his changeup has improved during his career. Not many pitchers have this combination of size and stuff, so he just needs to prove he can stay healthy. He hasn't shown chronic problems per se, but he'll be pitching in AA next year and doesn't have 200 innings of pro experience yet. He deserves credit for proving he's ready to handle the next level in instructs, but 2012 will be a critical year for proving his durability. 150 innings is a good target to reach. Come back Tuesday for the final week of Prospect A-Z. It will feature a Red Sox infielder with a really nice bat.


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