The writing was on the wall for Zack Wheeler in late February, when the New York Mets signed Jason Vargas to a two year contract. Vargas was going to give the Mets rotation depth and boot one of the team’s young starters out, with Wheeler the likeliest choice due to his injury history and poor return from Tommy John surgery in 2017. There was some thought that Wheeler would end up in the bullpen, but a poor spring training saw him get demoted to Triple-A to start the year. Wheeler pitched well in his first start for Las Vegas, earning him a shot in Vargas’ rotation slot last night, and he took full advantage.
On a night when the Mets really needed length from their starting pitcher, Wheeler delivered in spades, becoming the first Mets’ starter to go seven innings all season. Wheeler was dominant against the Miami Marlins, allowing only a first inning home run to Miguel Rojas and one other hit while walking one and striking seven. The other notable aspect of the performance was the fact that Wheeler pounded the strike zone, throwing 56 of his 83 pitches on the night for strikes. While some critics will scoff that Wheeler’s performance came against a weak Marlins’ lineup, that same group gave aces Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom fits in the middle innings the previous two nights.
Wheeler’s next turn in the rotation is slated for Tuesday night, in the middle game of a three game series with the Washington Nationals. Vargas is still working his way back from injury and is scheduled to throw a simulated game today, but it looks like the Mets want Vargas to pitch in one minor league rehab game before he returns to the big league rotation. That will give Wheeler the opportunity to pitch for a rotation spot again on Tuesday, and if he turns in another strong showing against Washington the Mets could have an intriguing choice on their hands.
While Syndergaard and deGrom are in no danger of losing their spots in the rotation, the other two starters could be sweating if Wheeler pitches well again. Neither Steven Matz nor Matt Harvey has gone deep in games for the Mets, and each has put together one good start and one bad one in their first two appearances. Both pitchers are set to appear in this weekend’s series with the Milwaukee Brewers, and a poor performance could open the door for Wheeler to take their spot in the rotation. Mickey Callaway has been clearly promoting a meritocracy in terms of who makes the roster, which was notable when he left Wheeler and Hansel Robles off the roster in spring training in favor of Seth Lugo and Jacob Rhame.
Robles has looked like a different pitcher after being forced to earn his roster spot, and Wheeler showed some of the same resolve last night. This should all benefit the Mets, who have a bunch of quality pitchers competing to remain in the big league rotation. The rotation has been a bit of a weak spot despite the Mets’ 10-1 start, so if Wheeler’s strong showing forces the rest of the unit to step up their game its a win-win situation.