Sabean Plays Russian Roulette with Zack Wheeler

Potential aces don’t grow on trees. So it came as quite a shock that the New York Mets acquired the San Francisco Giants’ top pitching prospect, Zack Wheeler, for free-agent-to-be Carlos Beltran.

Despite an ill-conceived article* on USA Today’s website, which suggests that the organization’s pitching prospects cannot be trusted, this was a shrewd move by the Mets organization and a very questionable decision by the Giants. Even as an amateur, Wheeler was a highly sought after talent and went to San Francisco sixth overall in the 2009 draft. Prior to the 2011 season during the Top 10 prospect lists, I ranked him as the Giants’ second best prospect in the system behind 1B/OF Brandon Belt.

Just 21, he’s posted solid numbers in high-A ball during his time in a potent offensive league. His FIP sits at 3.75 (3.99 ERA) and he’s posted a strikeout rate of 10.02 K/9 in 88.0 innings. Like a lot of young pitchers, he’s struggled with his control (4.81 BB/9) but has plenty of time to tighten up his delivery. Based on limited pro results, Wheeler has the potential to produce above-average strikeout and ground-ball rates at the MLB level. At his rate of development he could be ready to pitch in the Majors by late 2012 or, more likely, mid-to-late 2013.

With Wheeler now gone, the Giants’ top starting pitcher prospect is likely Eric Surkamp. He’s a nice pitcher in his own right but his ceiling is that of a No. 4 starter, which is a far cry from Wheeler’s No. 1 potential. The current starters in San Francisco had best be quite durable because the Giants are not going to find many high-ceiling starters available in the amateur draft if they continue to finish strongly in the standings each season (and therefore pick late in the amateur drafts). Despite what the Mets might tell you, it’s also very difficult to acquire this type of prospect in a trade.

Wheeler immediately becomes the Mets’ best pitching prospect. The organization already has a high-ceiling arm in Matt Harvey, and he’s a little more advanced, but his ceiling is not quite as high as the former Giant. With that said, it’s not hard to envision Wheeler and Harvey forming a very impressive 1-2 punch in three to four years.

The Giants organization stands to receive perhaps a 2.0 WAR performances from Beltran during the final two months of the season, if all goes well. The 34-year-old outfielder could – and probably should – walk at the end of the season. Wheeler, though, has a chance to develop into the type of pitcher that could produce multiple 5.0+ WAR seasons. Yes, minor league prospects are volatile, but the right-hander is one of those players that does not come along very often.

*The article at USA Today suggested that Giants pitching prospects that get traded are tainted. It cited the likes of Tim Alderson and Ryan Vogelsong but cherry-picked those trades. The writer also did not look at – or comment on – the general (and widely known) volatility of pitching prospects. It also did not do research to see how many top pitching prospects flame out when traded by other teams (therefore showing only a fraction of the picture). Nor did it mention the success that the organization has had develping the likes of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, and Jonathan Sanchez. It might have arguably the most impressive home-made rotation in the Majors.

Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.

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A Wheeler-Harvey-Niese top three in a few years could be awesome.