PORT ST. LUCIE — Shortly after 11 a .m. it started to get crowded behind the cage on Field 6 of the Mets spring training complex. New Mets manager Mickey Callaway and pitching coach Dave Eiland watched intently with scouts Tom Tanous and Bryn Alderson in the crowd. Above, on the second-story, covered deck that oversees every field, former manager Terry Collins watched.
While the big boys of the lineup — Yoenis Cespedes and Jay Bruce — were on Field 7 facing Jeurys Familia, it seemed like all the important eyes were focused on Zack Wheeler throwing live batting practice.
The right-hander, who is still trying to make a successful comeback from March 2015, is already in an uphill battle to stay out of the bullpen this spring.
Tuesday, a Mets front office source confirmed what had been assumed: that their plan right now is to use Wheeler out of the bullpen to start the season.
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With the signing of left-hander Jason Vargas to a two-year deal last weekend, the Mets have just two spots open for six guys who were major league starters last season.
So much is made of all the pitching talent the Mets came into spring training with, but the team isn’t really sure what they have even if all their starters are healthy.
Beyond Vargas, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, there are no certainties with this Mets rotation — even if somehow they all remain healthy.
Matt Harvey struggled last year with shoulder weakness after Thoracic Outlet Syndrome surgery, and after two major surgeries in the last four years, there are questions about what he can be going forward. Steven Matz has yet to remain healthy for a full season in the big leagues and has a long history of injury issues. Wheeler had a setback-filled two-year rehab from Tommy John surgery followed by arm fatigue and bone weakness in the third year. He has pitched just 86.1 innings in the big leagues since 2015.
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With deGrom, Syndergaard and Vargas guaranteed spots in the rotation the Mets face some choices that will make one of their former “Five Aces,” unhappy.
Interestingly all three — Harvey, Wheeler and Matz — still have one option left, meaning the Mets could safely option them to the minor leagues as starters without fearing a claim from another team.
Harvey, who has five years of service time, however, has the right to refuse that.
The Mets are not considering sending any of them to the minors at this point, the source said. Seth Lugo, who stepped into the injury-plagued rotation the last two seasons, is likely to be one that will be stretched out in the minors to be ready in case there is an injury. The Mets are concerned about putting too much work on Lugo, who is pitching with a partially torn UCL. They do not know if he would be able to pitch in back-to-back games, the source said.
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But what they saw from Wheeler last year makes them wonder if he will be a starter in the future.
While there are concerns about Wheeler’s ability to bounce back, which has been a problem with him in the past, and his durability, the Mets think their best option right now is to target him for the bullpen. To do that, they expect to pitch him early, most likely in Friday’s Grapefruit League opener, to see how he bounces back and responds to the challenges.
Wheeler has not been told of the Mets’ plans, but has been told to expect to pitch early this spring.
Wheeler has expressed his desire to remain a starter publicly several times. He was caught off guard on Saturday when he was asked by reporters of the Vargas signing, having learned of it not from the team but on social media, and came off a little upset about the signing. Wheeler, however, said he knew coming into spring that he was fighting an uphill battle.
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“I am not stupid, I know I’ve missed two and a half years, I know people have their doubts,” Wheeler said. “I knew I was coming in here to a competition. I expected it.”
Now it just seems that the competition for him to stay out of the bullpen and get one of the rotation spots is a little more of an uphill battle.
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