Last season Mets fans got a look into their future as Matt Harvey lit up Citi Field in the second half of the season. There is no one who s going to argue how impressive he was, but what is amazing is that, by most accounts, he wasn’t even the best pitching prospect the Mets had. That honor goes to Zack Wheeler, who many feel is among the best pitching prospects in all of baseball heading into 2013.
Since being acquired for Carlos Beltran at the 2011 trading deadline Wheeler has blossomed. That’s not to say that there isn’t anything concerning in his numbers, but having reached Triple-A in 2012 (six starts) it is apparent that fantasy owners will get their first glimpse of the next Mets phenom at some point in 2013. The question if he can make an instant impact, ala Harvey.
It is important to first get a feel for the arsenal Wheeler is working with. Baseball America, who like many recently ranked him as the Mets top prospect, has described him as throwing:
His fastball sits at 94-95 mph and tops out at 98, playing up thanks to an easy arm action and late life that often causes batters to take defensive swings. He throws downhill from a lanky 6-foot-4 frame, making it difficult—particularly for righthanders—to lift the ball. Righties batted just .204/.259/.271 against him last season. He shows a good feel for changing speeds on his fastball and for mixing in a two-seamer that runs away from lefties.
Wheeler relied more on a power curveball as a Giant, but he now turns equally to an upper-80s slider with plus potential. He still mixes in a sharp high-70s curve that bottoms out, and he also has the makings of an average changeup for which he’s trying to find the perfect grip.
It’s an impressive mix of pitches and it helped him to post a 3.26 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 116.0 innings at Double-A last season. Even more impressive was his control, which had been one of the major question marks when the Mets acquired him. Wheeler managed 117 K vs. just 43 BB, good for a BB/9 of 3.34.
Yes, the walk rate did balloon at Triple-A (4.36), but we all know that Sandy Alderson and company are going to give him the time at Triple-A to learn and figure out how to be as efficient as he was at Double-A. While fantasy owners wait impatiently, in the long run that’s going to be a good thing.
The thing is, the control is the biggest issue facing Wheeler and is all that stands in his way. Over the past two seasons in the minor leagues he has shown that he can avoid opposing hitters getting the barrel of the bat on the ball consistently, with a 14.8% line drive rate. While his groundball isn’t elite at 45.0%, it is more than enough. He has allowed just 11 HR the past two years and a grand total of four last year while facing the upper levels of the minors for the first time.
He also has clearly been working on throwing inside, after hitting 11 batters at Double-A and 12 total in 2012. Maybe that’s just an assumption, but considering the walk rate it is the likely conclusion.
All you have to do to get excited about Wheeler is read about his repertoire and look at the numbers. It is clear that he has the talent to be a viable Major League starting pitcher, the question is if he can harness it. Despite what Harvey did a year ago, it’s not fair to think that Wheeler can immediately step in and thrive. That isn’t the norm and there will likely be growing pains along the way.
Having thrown 149.0 innings last season, we are probably looking at between 180 and 185 this year. Keep that in mind, as it could lead to a slightly early end to his fantasy campaign (around early September, like with Harvey a year ago).
Is he worth stashing in deeper formats? Absolutely, and he is an obvious must own in keeper/dynasty formats. While he may not be your savior in 2013 (though he could easily be productive when he arrives, likely after the All Star Break), he could emerge as a rock in your rotation as soon as 2014.
What are your thoughts of Wheeler? How well do you expect him to produce? Do you see him as a viable option in 2013?
(Statistics came courtesy of Fangraphs and Minor League Central)
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Make sure to check out the rest of our 2013 Prospect Reports: