The year was 2009. Beyonce told men that if they enjoyed the company of a single woman, they should be prepared to put a ring on that woman’s finger. Avatar stretched my comfort level with how long I was willing to watch a movie in 3-D. And in June, the Braves prepared for something quite unfamiliar – a Top 10 pick in the MLB Draft.
Atlanta would pick seventh that season, their first time selecting in single digits since Mike Kelly in 1991. While a number of names were thrown about as possibilities, there was one that seemed like the perfect choice for the Braves – Zack Wheeler. Considered possibly the top prep arm in the draft, Wheeler was also a local boy. Born in Smyrna, he graduated from East Paulding High School – about a thirty-minute drive from Cobb County. He was committed to stay in George and go to Kennesaw State before the draft.
It seemed like a perfect marriage, but there was one problem. Right before the Braves were on the clock, the Giants swooped in and selected Wheeler. The Braves ended up surprising a number of people by going with Mike Minor, a college arm that appeared to have a limited ceiling.
In the end, the Braves felt good about their pick. They helped Minor find extra velocity and he helped them win a National League Eastern division. In fact, ironically, I’ve also written a column about how Minor would be a perfect addition to the Braves this year. Unfortunately for the Braves, but fortunately for Rangers fans, Minor’s squad finds themselves just 5.5 games back in the AL West and currently in possession of the second Wild Card spot. Short of a July collapse, Minor is probably off the table.
I also recently wrote how the Mets were still alive as a possible playoff contender. But the overachievers started early on a collapse and now are trailing the Wild Card by 7.5 games. That’s just a game better than the Giants, who are in deep sell mode. Since an okayish 10-6 start, the Mets have won just 27 of their next 68 games. June has been especially harsh on the team as their bullpen has found new ways to suck. They are in danger of being swept for the second consecutive series by an NL East rival. Even worse – the fifth-placed Marlins are closer to the Mets than New York is to the third-place Nationals.
While first-year general manager Brodie Van Wagenen spoke of how the NL East could “come get us” in the offseason and manager Mickey Callaway – when he’s not starting an altercation with reporters – still believes the Mets are going to turn it around, reality has to set in. It’s humbling and not always wanted, but the reality is there regardless. The Mets have surrendered 40 more runs than they’ve scored. Their bullpen is a mess of injuries and ugly performances. They had hoped Yoenis Cespedes would provide a shot in the arm come summer, but that’s not happening. The Mets’ hopes of competing are shot, as Mike Francesa would say.
But not all is lost for the Metropolitans. They have some great pieces to build with – notably Pete Alonso. They also locked up ace Jacob deGrom to a long-term deal. Furthermore, they have a couple of interesting trade pieces. Todd Frazier, a pending free agent, is starting to hit and could be an attractive get for a team needed depth at either first or third base. After a tough start to the season, Jason Vargas has turned it around and if the Mets are willing to pay his buyout for the 2020 season, he could bring back a prospect.
But if they do accept their fate and build toward 2020, the player who could bring back the most in a trade is Zack Wheeler. And maybe the perfect place for him is back home in Georgia.
The tall righty landed with the Mets just a year after he was picked by the Giants as New York traded Carlos Beltran to the Bay, grabbing Wheeler from the Giants. It was a coup for Sandy Alderson. The Giants missed the playoffs and lost their top prospect in the process. In 2013, Wheeler was promoted to the majors, striking out seven Braves in his debut. After a successful 17-start run to close 2013, Wheeler took a big step forward with a 3.54 ERA over 32 starts during 2014, including 187 strikeouts. But then injuries set in. He tore his UCL in spring training during 2015, undergoing a successful Tommy John surgery soon after. In the summer of 2016, Wheeler tried to make a comeback, but a flexor strain led to him being shut down for the rest of the season.
More arm troubles shortened his 2017 campaign to just 86.1 innings and he struggled throughout, allowing 15 homers and yielding a 5.21 ERA. The Mets didn’t know what they would get from Wheeler in 2018, but the tall righty came to play and put up a campaign that was a bit better than his 2014 breakout season. While his ERA has suffered from some iffy defense in 2019, Wheeler’s FIP of 3.75 indicates he’s pitched better than his 4.51 ERA would suggest.
A free agent after 2019, would the Braves be willing to bring in a potential rental? Would they meet the Mets’ demands? Those two questions are unknowns at this point, but what I can say is that Wheeler is a good fit for a team that could use another starter and the Braves definitely fit the bill.
Wheeler throws five pitches, which is relatively uncommon. That includes a pair of fastballs – a sinker and a four-seamer. His velocity on both is up over where they were in 2019 with an average just north of 96 mph. He throws either regardless if he’s facing a lefty or righty and is throwing his sinker a lot more this season than he has before. His favorite secondary pitch is his slider, a low 90’s wipeout offering that gets a lot of whiffs. Expect fewer sliders against lefties. To compensate, he’ll go to his splitter, which lefties really struggle with. He’ll also flash a curveball, a slow looper that he hopes will really confuse a hitter. Everything he throws is from 89 mph to 97 mph except the curve which floats in at 81. He’s been known to throw a changeup, though the splitter basically replaced it.
When Wheeler is humming, he’s keeping hitters off-balance with his repertoire of offerings, getting a fair share of infield pop-ups, and while he’s not technically a groundball pitcher, he’ll induce them at a 44%-47% rate. He keeps his homerun rate under control and limits exit velocity. To be fair, his exit velocity is up roughly 3 mph this year.
There are definitely questions with Wheeler. He hit the IL, however briefly, in 2018 and has pitched a full season just once back in 2014. His numbers, while largely still good in 2019, aren’t quite as impressive as they were the previous season. And he’ll hit free agency in November, potentially leaving his new team after they gave up a significant prospect – much like how he landed with the Mets in the first place.
But in a market where teams are shying away from the declining Madison Bumgarner and unwilling to pay the big price for Detroit’s Matt Boyd, Zack Wheeler could be a top target despite any concerns one might have. The problem for the Braves, of course, is price. Unlike most of those other teams, the Braves would not only pay a big price but have to deal with the potential consequences much more than other clubs. After all, the Braves and Mets play a lot due to the unbalanced schedules.
What would a potential deal for Wheeler look like? I’m not great at predicting deals, but I’ll give it a shot. The trade packages could go in a couple of directions. A one-for-one swap could land Wheeler, but it would take a premium prospect. Not Ian Anderson, Cristian Pache, or Drew Waters type of premium, but someone from that next level. To attach some names, I think Bryse Wilson, Wiliam Contreras, Kyle Muller, or Touki Toussaint could get a deal done. But that price may be too much so the Braves could seek to share the cost with multiple players – such as a Huascar Ynoa and maybe Travis Demeritte offering. Both players would be major-league ready and Ynoa still has some ceiling.
What about Ender Inciarte? Anytime we talk Braves potential trades, Inciarte is typically the first name we hear fans want to be traded. Could he work for a deal for Wheeler? I don’t see it myself. While the Mets could use a good defensive option in center field, cashing in their top trade chip for an offensively-challenged and aging player seems like too much of a stretch.
I don’t know if the team’s Draft War Room back in 2009 was crossing their fingers that Wheeler lasted to the seventh pick. Maybe Minor was their top target either way. But Wheeler seemed like a perfect fit then and he’s a perfect fit now. I’m sure the Braves will entertain the possibility. Will he be too expensive for them? Quite possibly. But would he be a welcome addition? You betcha.