Posted by Reese Kaplan at 8:00 AM
Arriving in exchange for Carlos Beltran, prospect Zack Wheeler moved rapidly through the Mets system until arriving in Queens in 2013. He turned in a highly credible partial year as a rookie with a 7-5 record and a 3.42 ERA over 17 starts. That kind of freshman campaign signaled great optimism for what would follow. In 2014 his ERA had a slight uptick to 3.54 but he gave up fewer baserunners which resulted in a drop in his FIP. For those of you not fans of then advanced sabermetrics, this figure equates to ERA but makes allowances for poor fielding behind a pitcher. The lower the number the better. He dropped from 4.17 in 2013 to 3.55 in 2014.
Everyone knows what happened next. Spring training of 2015 came and Wheeler felt something “pop” in his arm. Tommy John surgery and two long years of rehab have finally culminated in his return to the mound. There were some misgivings early in camp that seemed to indicate he might not be fully healed. As of Monday he had only appeared in a single game, 2 IP, gave up a run and had a somewhat unsightly 1.50 WHIP. That’s pretty much to be expected after not having pitched competitively in two full years, but the smart money is on Wheeler starting the season in the extended spring training in Port St. Lucie rather than rushing him back during what could be a cold April.
Drafted in the 34th round of 2011, Lugo did not have the pedigree that guaranteed a swift rise through the ranks. He started out well in Kingsport going 5-2 with a 3.66 ERA but then wound up missing the entire 2012 season due to a condition that required spinal fusion surgery. People within the organization probably didn’t know what to expect from the big Cajun righthander, but between two teams in 2013 he returned successfully, pitching to a better 3.39 ERA and upping his strikeout rate to 1 per IP.
Unfortunately as he moved up again to Port St. Lucie, he kept winning (8-3) but his ERA rose. However, his strikeouts did as well as he was now up to 9.8 per 9 IP. He continued his slow climb up the ladder and at Binghamton he got his ERA down to 3.80 but the strikeout rate also dipped. He got his first taste of Las Vegas in 2015 where over 5 starts he improved on his WHIP and posted his highest K rate, so signs were looking up. In 2016 however it appeared he hit the wall and was bounced from the starting rotation and thrust into a never before experienced bullpen role. It was this role that actually earned him a promotion to the Mets in 2016.
During his first appearance against the Cubs he tossed 2 shutout innings and helped seal a victory out of the pen. In late August he joined the starting rotation as one-by-one the Mets lost their regular pitchers. He finished in impressive fashion, going 5-2 over 8 starts with a 2.67 ERA, allowing just about a single baserunner per inning. His strikeouts were down but you can’t argue with the results.
This spring he was off to a pretty decent start with 7 IP and a 3.86 ERA. However, it is his performance in the WBC that really opened eyes. He started and delivered 5.1 IP of shutout ball against a Venezuela lineup that included Jose Altuve, Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Gonzalez and Victor Martinez, All-Stars all.
Drafted out of high school in the same 2011 class as Lugo, Gsellman went in the 11th round so he was a bit more highly regarded. Their greater faith was well rewarded. Despite facing the usual Las Vegas challenges that resulted in some ugly numbers, his career ERA is a tidy 3.11 with a 1.2 WHIP and nearly a 3:1 strikeout to walk ratio. He was a little hittable with 8.6 hits per 9 IP, but he never had a bad year until his 2016 debut in Sin City where he was rudely greeted in the thin, dry air. How bad was it? Try 1-5, 5.73 ERA and a WHIP of over 1.5. Ugh! In fact, it was a little surprising when he was promoted to the Mets given his struggles during his first look at AAA.
Perhaps it was gratitude about being out of the high elevation or pride in making it to the majors, but Gsellman truly shined in his seven start trial. He went 4-2 with a 2.42 ERA, striking out a career high 8.5 per 9 IP. In his early career he was known to hit the upper 90s in velocity but lately his cutter and sinker dominant pitching has been a more pedestrian 93 mph. Still, like Lugo, the results speak for themselves.
His initial start in AAA seemed to cement his frontrunner position for the 5th starter role. After all, the high strikeout potential of Lugo might better be suited to the pen where he also had had some experience. Unfortunately his next start was not a good one and it looked like he was facing his first adversity since putting on a Mets uniform. However, he acquitted himself with 3 scoreless innings of relief on Monday, lowering his spring ERA to 2.57.
Given the depth at this position you would think it’s nearly impossible for anyone else to crack the starting rotation, but a few pitchers this spring are opening some eyes. Once uber prospect Rafael Montero is having a whale of a Grapefruit League 2017. He’s leading all starters with 9.2 IP, struck out a very impressive 14 and walked just 3. His 1.86 ERA is pretty eye popping as well, though some observers point out he has had some vultured situations in which he’s allowed inherited runners to score. Still, batters are only hitting .176 against him. Wow. While a front office source said that the Mets couldn’t give him away during the winter, it would appear he’s done what he had to do to make people consider his viability. It’s not likely going to be on the Mets, but he could sneak into the bullpen and last there long enough for another club to make an offer.
Adam Wilk has been nearly as good as Montero. He’s also pitched over 9 innings already and sports a 1.93 ERA. At this point you’d have to think he’s ticketed to a starting role in Las Vegas, but being left handed does stand in his favor as the projected rotation only features Steve Matz from the southpaw side. He’s always had excellent control and he could sneak onto the Queens staff if injuries create the demand, though more likely in a bullpen role. (Update:Since written, Wilk has been sent to the minor league camp)
I still think the job is Robert Gsellman’s to lose. He has always been a starter and nothing he’s done in front of the big bosses has to sour them on his potential to succeed. Lugo has worked out of the pen before and whether he starts as the long man in Queens or in the rotation in Las Vegas, I think the 4 year older wunderkind of the WBC is fighting an uphill battle. Wheeler will complicate the picture once they deem he’s both strong enough and healthy enough to carry a full workload. The wildcards are just that – highly unlikely to happen but stranger things have happened.