Adding injury to the ongoing insult that is their 2019 season, the Mets have placed Zack Wheeler on the 10-day injured list due to what the team described as shoulder fatigue and what the pitcher himself defined as impingement. The 29-year-old righty’s condition has been described by sources as “not a serious concern,” and the timing still leaves open the possibility that the pending free agent could return before the July 31 trade deadline and demonstrate his fitness for potential suitors. Nonetheless, the news puts a significant dent in whatever plans the Mets may have to retool amid a season gone awry.
Back in January, after signing free agents Jed Lowrie, Wilson Ramos, and Jeurys Familia, as well as trading for Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz, rookie general manager Brodie Van Wagenen boldly told reporters, “I look forward to showing people that we’re a team to be reckoned with. Let’s not be shy on wanting to be the best and I fully expect us to be competitive, to be a winning team. Our goal is to win a championship and it starts with the division. So come get us.” Last Friday, with the Mets 40-50 as they began the second half — fourth in the NL East, 13.5 games out of first place, and second-to-last in the Wild Card race at seven games out — Van Wagenen conceded, “They came and got us.”
Ouch. As the trade deadline approaches — and this year, there’s only one deadline, with no August waiver period during which teams can buy time for injured players to heal — it’s time for Van Wagenen to break up this non-dynasty. In a market light in frontline starting pitching, Wheeler figured to be an attractive rental option due to his combination of performance (more on which momentarily) and price (he’s making just $5.975 million). He’s drawn attention from the Braves, Brewers, Red Sox, Yankees, and probably other teams as well.
Wheeler last pitched on July 7, a start in which he was roughed up for six runs in five innings by the Phillies, but because of the All-Star break, his IL stint can only be backdated to July 12, making him eligible to return on July 22. Even if he were to return that quickly to audition for a trade, squeezing in a second start might be unwise. Here let us note that the Mets are not exactly known for lucking into best-case scenarios when it comes to injuries, mainly because they have a longstanding reputation for initially downplaying their severity. That’s why the first impulse is to cringe when seeing a tweet like this from a beat reporter:
Sources maintain this is not a serious concern with Wheeler. (Yes, he's on IL, but it's more precautionary than anything. Had been dealing with this fatigue for a bit, so Mets are giving him some extra timing.
Still not ideal timing.
"He's good," one source said.
— Matt Ehalt (@MattEhalt) July 15, 2019
Wheeler underwent an MRI on Monday morning, and on Tuesday he described the results as “pretty much clean,” which isn’t exactly a medical diagnosis. He declined to set a timetable for his return, or how many starts he could miss, saying, “Could be one start, two, three.”
If Wheeler’s situation is simply workload-related, it’s understandable. While his 119 innings are “only” sixth in the league, his 1,985 pitches thrown this year are more than any NL hurler besides Max Scherzer (2,027). His 11 starts on four days’ rest is tied for fifth in the majors, while his 70.1 innings in such starts is fourth, behind only Trevor Bauer (100.1), German Marquez (87.1), and Zack Greinke (72.2). Eight of his past 10 starts, including his last four in a row, were on four days’ rest, compared to just three of his first nine. An extra day of rest thrown in here and there probably would have helped.
To be fair, Wheeler had finally found a groove by the end of that laborious stretch, making three straight turns allowing two runs or fewer, his longest of the year, and against the contending Cubs, Phillies, and Yankees to boot. The string had temporarily shaved half a run off his ERA, but after his July 7 drubbing, he’s back up to 4.69, albeit with a 3.66 FIP. That 1.03 runs per nine gap is the majors’ second-highest among the 79 qualifiers in both leagues.
Wheeler’s ERA and FIP are both up substantially relative to last year despite improvements in his strikeout and walk rates, not to mention his average fastball velocity (from 96.5 mph to 97.1 via Pitch Info). A higher BABIP — some of which is attributable to the Mets’ putrid defense, which ranks last in the NL in defensive efficiency (.670, 17 points below the league average), UZR (-23.5), and DRS (-64) — and a higher home run rate are major culprits:
Wheeler’s ground-ball and fly-ball rates (44.5% and 34.9%) are within half a percentage point of last year’s marks, and his ratio has only risen from 1.25 to 1.27. His rate of home runs per fly ball is still below the MLB average of 15.2%. However, the fly balls he’s allowing are going further — much, much further:
|Year||FB+LD||Avg EV||Avg LA||Avg Dist||xwOBA|
Mercy. I’ve included line drives here because MLBAM and Sports Info Solutions (our data provider) differ significantly when it comes to classifying flies and liners, but the stark split holds even if I limit the info to the former. Via the 108 balls classified as flies last year, Wheeler yielded an average exit velocity of 88.7 mph, an average distance of 305 feet, and an xwOBA of .368, while this year, on 71 flies, he’s at 91.0 mph, 320 feet, and an xwOBA of .494.
Picking up on an observation made by Baseball Prospectus’ Zach Crizer in discussing the homer-prone Justin Verlander, last year Wheeler allowed 29 batted balls with a launch angle between 15 and 35 degrees and an exit velocity of at least 100 mph — batted balls with what Crizer called baseline homer characteristics. Nine of those (31.0%) became homers, well below the major league average for such balls (43.0%). This year, it’s a different story: 11 of 24 of those balls went for homers (45.6%), which is still below the MLB average for such balls (48.6% as of July 10), not to mention Verlander’s rate (64.5%, again as of July 10). All of which is to say that Wheeler hasn’t been extraordinarily unlucky in this department relative to last year; he just hasn’t been as good.
All told, it’s difficult to see the Mets getting the maximum value for the two-month rental of Wheeler’s services even if he does return by the end of the month, and he’s hardly alone among potentially tradeable Mets whose stock isn’t exactly booming. Consider first their other pending free agents. Outfielder Juan Lagares, who’s making $9 million, with a $500,000 buyout for next year’s $9.5 million club option, has hit for a 33 wRC+ in 158 PA and has the NL’s lowest WAR (-1.3). Infielder Adeiny Hechavarria, making just $3 million, has an 80 wRC+ in 106 PA and 0.1 WAR. Third baseman Todd Frazier, who’s making $9 million (plus a $500,000 assignment bonus if traded), is the best of their position players in their final year before free agency. After missing the first 22 games of the season due to an oblique strain, he’s hit for a 109 wRC+ with 0.9 WAR since returning.
And then there’s Jason Vargas, who has been throwing better lately than at the start of the season, running off an 11-start stretch with a 2.55 ERA before a pair of less flattering outings. His overall numbers (4.23 ERA, 4.66 FIP) look worse in a park-adjusted context (102 ERA-, 108 FIP-). Though he’s relatively cheap (making $8 million this year, with some minor incentives and a $2 million buyout on next year’s $8 million club option), he’s been in the news for physically threatening Newsday reporter Tim Healey; his lack of accountability for the incident is said to have angered the front office.
None of those players will bring much in return, and if recent history is a guide, the Mets are less likely to focus on the talent they receive in exchange than the ability to dump payroll. They received a trio of 40-FV prospects for dealing Familia (Will Toffey and Bobby Wahl) and Asdrubal Cabrera (Franklyn Kilome) last summer, with their new teams (the A’s and Phillies, respectively) absorbing all remaining salary. They also dumped all remaining salary and didn’t receive anything better than a 40-FV prospect when it came to the mid-2017 deals involving Jay Bruce, Lucas Duda, Curtis Granderson, and Addison Reed as well.
As for players under club control beyond 2019, there’s nothing to indicate that All-Stars Jacob deGrom, Pete Alonso, and Jeff McNeil are anything but untouchable in trade. At the other end of the spectrum, they won’t be able to deal Cano (who’s signed through 2023), Yoenis Cespedes (who’s out for the whole year due to surgery on both heels, and signed for next year), Lowrie (who has yet to play due to a left knee sprain), or Familia (who’s been torched for a 7.42 ERA and signed through 2021) unless it’s part of some creative exchange of toxic assets, and since Van Wagenen isn’t Andrew Friedman, it’s best not to hold your breath waiting for that to happen.
Of the rest, the Mets would be selling low if they dealt starters Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz, both controllable through 2021. Syndergaard has a 4.66 ERA and 3.80 FIP, with a home run rate that’s more than doubled since last year (from 0.52 to 1.12 per nine). His 23.4% strikeout rate represents a career low; since 2016, he’s fallen from 137 to 101 in terms of the league-normalized K%+. Matz is carrying a 4.89 ERA and 5.39 FIP, which isn’t much help. Diaz, under control through 2022, has a 5.38 ERA and 3.58 FIP; his decline from last year owes much to a home run rate that’s nearly tripled (from 0.61 to 1.78 per nine). Brandon Nimmo, also controllable through 2022, is on the IL due to a bulging disc in his neck that has limited him to an 89 wRC+ and 0.2 WAR in 161 PA. Ramos, who’s signed through next year with an option for 2021, has hit for a 104 wRC+ with 0.4 WAR, down from last year’s 131 and 2.1, respectively.
That leaves only a few true trade chips beyond the rentals, and they’re all part of a corner outfield logjam that has been the bane of the team’s existence since they re-signed Cespedes in the winter of 2015-16. Twenty-six-year-old right fielder Michael Conforto (hitting .241/.357/.468 with 17 homers and a 119 wRC+) is controllable through 2021 and was an honorable mention in our brand new trade value series. J.D. Davis (.276/.344/.463 with nine homers and a 115 wRC+) is also 26, and is controllable through 2024 but a lousy defender at both third base (-1.7 UZR) and left field (-2.0).
Dominic Smith (.295/.380/.527 with eight homers and a 142 wRC+), who is 24 and under control through 2024, is the prize of the bunch. With Alonso having clearly demonstrated that first base is his domain for the foreseeable future, Smith has been squeezed into left field, where he’s made 22 starts, compared to seven at first base; he’s also pinch-hit 35 times, which is a waste of a young player. He deserves a shot at regular play at his primary position, and with five full years of club control remaining, he could net a substantial return in trade. While trading Frazier would thin out the left field traffic — since Davis or McNeil could play third — doing so while giving more time to Smith in left certainly won’t help the defense or fix the bigger picture.
Barring significant improvements from the above players over the next two weeks, or a bold shift in direction, the Mets don’t figure to reap a windfall by selling at the trade deadline. Wheeler’s injury, even if relatively minor, doesn’t help. Chalk it up as just one more thing gone wrong in a humbling and forgettable season in Queens.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.