2015 New York Mets: Why Wheeler’s injury really hurts


Keith Miller

Keith Miller was the Mets opening-day center fielder in 1990, and held the job for about a month. By the end of the month he was no longer the starter (Darryl Boston, waived by the White Sox, was) and by December of 1991 he was no longer a Met. Miller was a utility player — he did everything in his career but pitch or catch — who was a second baseman before all else. He batted .280 and stole 14 bases in ’91, which helped get him traded to Kansas City, with Kevin McReynolds and Gregg Jeffries, for Bret Saberhagen. With the Royals, he got a career-high 416 at-bats in ’92 and batted .284 with 31 walks, 16 steals and 32 extra-base hits. But he batted . 167 in ’93 and got just 32 more major-league at-bats. Career numbers: .262 average, 347 hits, 100 walks, 63 steals. 89 OPS+, 12 homers, 3.8 WAR.

On deck: The Mets drafted Steven Matz with their first pick of 2009 at No. 72. If it sounds like it took a long time to draft him — the Mets ceded their No. 1 pick to sign Francisco Rodriguez, which the Angels accepted and turned into outfielde Randal Grichuk and pitcher Garrett Richards — it’s a New York minute compared to how long it took to play him. Matz used all of that summer to sign, so he didn’t pitch in 2009. He needed Tommy John surgery, so he didn’t pitch in 2010, and his rehab was complicated by scar tissue and soreness, so he didn’t pitch in 2011, either. More than three years after the day he was drafted, Matz made his professional debut. His career has gone a lot better than the prelude, and better than fellow prospect Noah Syndergaard’s 2014 summer in Las Vegas: Matz has a 2.32 ERA in three seasons and 286 strikeouts in 275.1 innings. He spent half of 2014 in Class AA, which is better than Syndergaard, who spent half of 2014 in reverse. Luckily for Syndergaard, his 2014 stats — a 4.60 ERA and 154 hits in 133 innings — stay in Vegas, thanks to the Pacific Coast League, where stats are inflated worse than currency in Venezuela. At least that’s his excuse.

Trivia: Jacob De Grom (9-6, 2.69 ERA) was the fifth Met, four of them pitchers, to be voted Rookie of the Year. Who were the previous Mets Rookies of the Year? Answer below.

What he said: Mets GM Sandy Alderson on injured pitcher Zack Wheeler: “His starts, his innings, and his pitches were managed accordingly. There have been times when he pitched a higher number of innings, times when he may have been backed off a little bit. But he was also managed to the symptoms …” What he meant: “He wouldn’t have thrown so many pitches if he had thrown more strikes.”

Outlook: The Mets will be the second-best team — unless the Marlins are — in the NL East this year, which is a little like being the doorman at the Trump Towers. You might be close to luxury, but you won’t get to partake of it.

It’s hard to be a Mets fan these days, whether it’s the frequency of Tommy John injuries the team’s young pitchers suffer or how little was done to prevent the last one, the policy of thriftiness which the Mets approach free agency or how little that matters when Michael Cuddyer is available, or the losing.

The Mets won 79 games last year, which doesn’t sound like many, but it was the most they had won since 2008 and it tied them for second place, albeit 17 games out of first.

The Mets have slowly built a team of promise, long on pitching and defense if short on power, ready to surpass .500 this year. But nobody’s talking much about that, at least not since they announced in spring training that Zack Wheeler would need surgery. It was hard to tell which was worse: the season-ending injury to an up-and-coming pitcher or GM Sandy Alderson’s apparently cavalier response.

Said Alderson: “If it blows out, it blows out. The alternative is that you manage somebody to the point where he’s not useful to you.” You can almost hear Alderson channeling his inner Donald Rumsfeld: “You pitch with the elbow you have, not the elbow you might want or wish to have.”

Maybe Alderson is right and Wheeler’s injury was unavoidable. And maybe it might have been prevented with a modicum of caution. Maybe Wheeler’s elbow wouldn’t have blown out had he not thrown 110 pitches or more 13 times — according to the New York Post, no other 24-year-old threw that many more than seven times — or had he not averaged 17.8 pitches per inning — according to Newsday, that led the NL.

A September 7, 2014 Post headline read: “Zack Wheeler’s pitch counts raise eyebrows with Mets brass.” Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to raise awareness with the Mets any higher up than the eyebrows. But it also makes it harder for the Mets’ front office to defend itself. If the Post foresaw the potential for Wheeler’s injury, why did the team continue to permit the conditions that might expedite it (in his last three starts of 2014, all after Sept. 7, Wheeler topped 100 pitches each time)?

The Mets are big on mystery, if not solving them. The biggest news of the offseason was the acquisition of outfielder Michael Cuddyer, who cost the Mets $20 million and the 15th pick of the 2015 draft. Cuddyer can help a team that was tied for 21st in runs scored, 20th in home runs and 26th in OPS — he has a career 114 OPS+ and has batted .331 and .332 for the Rockies over the last two seasons. But the willingness to forfeit such a high draft pick is curious.

Couldn’t the Mets have found someone to help their offense who didn’t cost a first-round pick? At Cuddyer’s age (36 this week) and out of Coors, is he really that much better than Justin Ruggiano? Better, yes. But eight million dollars better? The 15th pick of the draft better? Was he better than Michael Morse, who didn’t cost the Marlins a draft pick?

Apparently, the Mets are going to do what the Mets are going to do, and there’s no alternatives to that.

Trivia answer: The four previous Mets to be Rookies of the Year: Tom Seaver (16-13, 2.76 in 1967), Jon Matlack (15-10, 2.32 in 1972), outfielder Darryl Strawberry (26 homers, 19 steals, .512 slugging in 1983) and Dwight Gooden (17-9, 2.60) in 1984.

Team song: REM: Everybody hurts

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