Friday there was a reason to pay attention to what was going on in Florida. Zack Wheeler was pitching. There was no TV or radio transmitting back to us how Zack looked live, which was too bad, because for a team whose likely composition is largely known, Wheeler’s 2017 isn’t a projection we can reflexively paint by number into the big picture. We needed to get a look at him.
Ever since we were introduced to the concept of Zack Wheeler in the summer of 2011 what Zack has actually accomplished, for one reason or another, has been of less importance than how Zack has looked and, more recently, how Zack has felt. Zack Wheeler, by now, was supposed to be past all of that. Zack was supposed to be doing big things in the major leagues. If the Mets were going to be doing big things, Zack was going to be one of the primary reasons.
The Mets have done big things. Zack is still waiting to pitch in.
None of this is an indictment of a youthful if not quite so young anymore hurler from whom those big things were expected. This is not the story of a Met pitcher failing to live up to expectations and letting us down. Wheeler has made 49 starts for us, yet he’s barely just begun. Or so it feels. Our observation of Zack has always been, more or less, like it was on Friday. We weren’t so much concerned with what Zack did as we were with how he looked.
The first time most of us got a gander at Wheeler was Spring Training 2013, when he’d been the most tantalizing prospect in the Met system for a year-and-a-half. It didn’t matter that few of us had seen him as a minor leaguer. We were told this guy was worth sacrificing the last couple of months of Carlos Beltran, and just about all of us were on board. Naturally, we wanted to see what we were in for. How did Zack look?
We got a better portrait of his abilities before the 2013 season was at its midpoint. The Mets called him up to Atlanta, near his hometown in Georgia, and told him to pitch the back end of a day-night doubleheader in mid-June. He was the youngest Met ever, chronologically speaking, the first to have emerged from a womb in the 1990s. Soon enough, we assured one another, he’d lock right arms with the sensational Matt Harvey and lead us to better afternoons and evenings in the latter portion of the 2010s. How did Zack look?
It was reasonable to show patience with Wheeler for the balance of 2013 and all of 2014. There was nothing else to do but learn and grow and understand that Rome would have to be built tenuously every five days. There were good outings, bad outings, middling outings, a couple more good outings. It was all part of a process unfolding away from anything resembling pressure. These Mets, like their stud under construction, were in the midst of finding their way. How did Zack look?
Then came 2015 and we barely got a look at Zack before he had to get looked at by a doctor. Tommy John replaced Matt Harvey as his companion. Matt came back from similar circumstances. So would Zack, our intuition and the Mets told us. In Zack’s absence, the Mets stepped up, all the way to the World Series. Surely they’d rise even higher in 2016 once Zack stretched out his moneymaker sufficiently. How did Zack look?
Except he never returned in 2016, what with some TJ surgeries working their miracles less miraculously than others, not to mention other issues making themselves nuisances. We were assured the postponements were leading somewhere, to March 2017, to the first time Zack took the mound in something approximating a Mets game in two years. How did Zack look?
He looked all right, according to sources. He threw hard, he experienced no reported discomfort and he didn’t get lit up. Really, who could ask for anything more? By now, we figured we’d be asking of Zack what we’ve routinely leaned on Matt, Jacob, Noah and Steven for, what we are ready to expect on a regular basis from Seth and Robert, thanks to how they filled in last season. Every one of those starting pitchers has thrown in the heat of a playoff race or two. Four of them are veterans of October. A few of them were promoted with the kind of fanfare attendant to Zack Wheeler’s elevation. We are interested in how they look at this stage of the exhibition schedule, partly out of curiosity, partly because the results themselves don’t count a lick, partly because almost everybody on this staff has experienced some kind of physical red flag in the recent past.
Zack Wheeler is still getting going, still needing to look good before we can feel fully confident in insisting that he be fairly great. We continue to root for his progress until we don’t even have to think about it.
I’ve been enthusiastically talking Piazza lately and would love you to listen in. Tune into the Mookiee podcast (hosted by a couple of aces) here and Cannoli & Knish at WNHH in New Haven here. I’ll be signing copies at Foley’s in Manhattan on March 19 and speaking at Staples High School in Westport on March 21, details on both appearances here. Oh, and you can order your copy of my book about Mike’s Mets here.